Could trade in solar panels be fairer? Yes. It might also cost US jobs.

An Atlanta-based company is building the kind of trade case that should make “America Firsters” salivate.

Chinese-owned competitors are flooding the global market with cheap, subsidized products. Manufacturers in the United States, which invented the technology, are so battered by imports that they’re on their last legs.

There are just two problems in the Suniva trade case that might give the Trump administration pause:

  1. The industry in trouble is solar energy – not a favorite of the fossil-fuel-loving president.
  2. To save US solar manufacturers, President Trump would likely kill more jobs than he preserves.

That’s right. US production of the dominant solar-cell technology is sharply eroded, while the job-rich side of the industry is the installation of foreign-made solar panels. They’re so cheap that even the Chinese are losing money making them. As a result, US homeowners and businesses are snapping them up like hotcakes.

Last year, a record, the industry installed so many new photovoltaic (PV) panels that the United States added more electric-generating capacity from solar than any other source, even natural gas. Since 2012, employment has more than doubled, to more than 250,000.

That is why the industry, by and large, wants the White House to ignore the Suniva case. But the case is also a window on the tricky economics of trade. Where some experts say this case counters the notion that “made in the USA” means more US jobs, others see a question of fair play that goes beyond this one firm, because subsidies for current technologies may stifle the next wave of solar innovation.

“In any of these cases, you are going to have winners and losers,” says Matthew West, a partner at the law firm Baker Botts, who follows legal actions on trade. “This is definitely a case where Suniva is going to have an uphill climb.”

Ball not in Trump’s court yet

The industry, for one thing, has rallied around the installers rather than Suniva.

“There is no job worth saving that [should put] the other 250,000 at risk,” Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, told reporters May 15 in a conference call.

Mr. Trump might not get his chance to intervene. Suniva has filed a rarely used provision of the 1974 Trade Act for relief. Section 201, as it’s known, was last used successfully in 2001 to protect the US steel industry and would allow the US to levy tariffs on solar imports for up to four years.

But to reach the president, the case must first go through the fiercely independent International Trade Commission. And the ITC must not only find that exports were a leading culprit in injuring the industry but also that Suniva represents the industry.

So far, the bankrupt company looks very isolated. Its majority owner is actually Chinese, and has told the ITC it opposes the tariffs. Suniva’s more natural ally, SolarWorld, America’s largest manufacturer of crystalline-silicon solar cells, has…

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