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US solar panel imports near record levels as trade probe proceeds

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US solar panel imports near record levels as trade probe proceeds

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US solar imports from Southeast Asia continue rising, but a new trade case could upend that trend.
Source: jgroup/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images.

US solar panel imports remained robust in the first three months of 2024, coming in just short of the prior quarter's record 15 GW and notching a 13.8% gain from a year ago, according to the S&P Global Market Intelligence Global Trade Analytics Suite.

Factories in four Southeast Asian countries — Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia — accounted for 13 GW or 87.5% of the first quarter's total 14.8 GW of photovoltaic (PV) module imports.

Southeast Asian volumes rose about 3% quarter on quarter, according to the Global Trade Analytics Suite, which relies on data reported to the US Census Bureau.

Future import levels hinge on the outcome of a new US investigation into the alleged illegal import of crystalline solar cells and panels from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia.

"What we have today is record levels of imports — $12.4 billion in the last 12 months from these four countries — causing a price collapse that's been well documented of more than 50%, and injuring and threatening the emerging domestic solar manufacturing industry," Tim Brightbill, lead counsel for a coalition of US PV producers that prompted the probe, said May 23 during a Roth Capital Partners webinar.

A preliminary determination in the case, which targets companies primarily headquartered in China, could come as soon as July ahead of a possible final determination in January 2025, S&P Global Commodity Insights analysts said in a recent report.

"The immediate impact will be a rush to import modules from Southeast Asia in the coming weeks to avoid the potential retroactive tariffs," they said, noting that duties, if confirmed, would be applied retroactively from June 10. If that happens, the US solar industry "will face increased isolation and module procurement challenges" given insufficient domestic production, they added.

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Domestic production at risk

The trade case comes as US solar manufacturers, including petitioners First Solar Inc. and Qcells, an affiliate of South Korean industrial conglomerate Hanwha Corp., deploy billions of dollars to expand domestic production capacity.

But America's emerging new solar factories, which have access to valuable tax incentives through the Inflation Reduction Act, could be "decimated" unless the federal government addresses China's alleged "unfair trade practices," First Solar CEO Mark Widmar said in early May on the Arizona-headquartered company's first-quarter earnings call.

In addition to expanding its thin-film PV factory in Ohio and building new hubs in Alabama and Louisiana, First Solar produces panels in India, Malaysia and Vietnam.

First Solar was one of the largest shippers of PV panels into the US in the first quarter of 2024, according to data collected by Panjiva, a supply chain research unit of Market Intelligence. Other major shippers in the quarter include affiliates of China-based PV makers Trina Solar Co. Ltd., Boway Group, Jiangsu Runergy New Energy Technology Co. Ltd. and Jiangxi Risun Solar Energy Co. Ltd.

Factories in Vietnam led solar panel shipments to the US in the first three months of 2024, accounting for 36.8% of the 14.8 GW, followed by Thailand with 25.7%, Malaysia with 16.2% and Cambodia with 8.8%.

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