Aleo Produces Solar Panels

SolarWorld has withstood the slings and arrows of a big portion of the U.S. solar industry, but the panel maker’s successful pursuit of a “level playing field”– or is it wanton protectionism? – appears to be paying off. On Thursday, the company called in the media to announce it would add a production line at its Hillsboro, Oregon, plant that will increase capacity there by 40 percent and result in 200 new jobs.

It was a bit of victory lap for SolarWorld, with the powerful Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a staunch ally, there to salute the company for what he practically suggested was a moral crusade.

“This was a fight,” Wyden said. “This was a tough fight, and we were going up against some people who were going to great lengths to win. Some companies might have packed it in, but SolarWorld said that’s not what we’re about.”

The increase in capacity and workforce growth will unfold in 2015 and will bring employment at the suburban Portland plant, the biggest panel-making facility in the country, to 900. SolarWorld added that it saw the rise from 380 to 530 MW of capacity as “a stepping-stone to 630 MW capacity in the near future.”

SolarWorld had employed some 1,200 workers in the U.S. in 2011 before a flood of cheap Chinese imports suddenly began to devastate solar manufacturers all over the world. Parent company SolarWorld AG, teetering on the brink, fought back by bringing trade cases in the E.U. while the Oregon-based unit did likewise in the U.S.

Aleo Produces Solar Panels

SolarWorld won victory after victory in Washington, proving its allegations of illegal dumping and state subsidies to U.S. regulators and expanding the scope of the duties to close loopholes and include products from Taiwan as well.

Duty levels vary by company, but after winning another case in July, SolarWorld estimated the average toll at about 47 percent. All the cases SolarWorld has brought haven’t closed, but they are being enforced, and analysts say the duties have teeth.

Clearly they are making a difference for SolarWorld. According to a spokesman, the company is now operating at full capacity – which was not the case in 2013, he said – necessitating the expansion.

Industrywide, solar continued to grow at a good clip in the first half of this year, led by utility-scale projects, but in the past few months some developers have complained that higher prices were putting new projects in jeopardy. That scenario, if it unfolds in earnest, would fulfill a prediction by SolarWorld’s U.S. critics, who have used cheap imports to expand their own business. Under the banner of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, those opponents have tried to push the Obama administration and SolarWorld toward a deal with China.

SolarWorld President Mukesh Dulani and Wyden both endorsed the concept of a global solar trade agreement, but seemed skeptical that it could happen in the next few months, before U.S. regulators finalize the still-open trade cases.

And Wyden vigorously defended SolarWorld’s tactics, not in merely protecting its own business, but in preserving the American manufacturing sector. “You have to have manufacturing because if you don’t have manufacturing you can be held hostage,” said Wyden, who added that “this industry was up against it because China refused to play by trade rules.”

“What we are seeing today is a textbook case of how enforcing America’s trade laws can help create family-wage manufacturing jobs,” Wyden said.