Strictly business: Dark battle over the sun's power

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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In politics, the old adage is that the person who masters Roberts Rules of Order is most likely to win the day. In the courtroom, the best procedural expert can win a not-guilty verdict for even an O.J. Simpson.

And in the long-gestating solar power industry, the ground rules for international competition have become just as important as the technology of harnessing the sun's energy.

The industry's contentious battle over those ground rules pits one industry coalition led by SolarWorld, a German company that bases its U.S. operations in Hillsboro, Ore., against another coalition representing solar materials manufacturers and installers. SolarWorld, arguing that Chinese government-subsidized solar companies are dumping cheap solar panels onto a saturated market, wants U.S. tariffs on Chinese solar panels. Its solar industry siblings argue tariffs will only raise costs to consumers, reducing the industry's potential to catch a growth wave that will create spinoff jobs.

SolarWorld won an early round when the Commerce Department issued a preliminary ruling this month to impose tariffs of 31 to 250 percent on Chinese solar panels and cells. The company declared partial victory, hinting at a need for higher tariffs and saying it plans to file a similar trade complaint against China in Europe. Its long-falling stock price climbed by 18 percent overnight.

But the words "trade war" were on the lips of analysts and politicians, who awaited signals that China would retaliate with tariffs of its own. Many expect China's move could come any day.

Reverberations in N.W.

That Chinese reaction would be bad news for some Northwest companies, including REC Silicon of Moses Lake. The company is one of the world's largest producers of polysilicon for solar applications, and much of its product heads straight to China. It has become a leading voice opposing SolarWorld's complaint against China.

Sharp Solar, based in Camas, is among the many companies in the industry sitting on the sidelines. The complex, interwoven dealings between technology multinationals makes it tough to separate trade practices into "us" versus "them."

Battles over dumping of products priced so low that they drive out competition aren't new. Before solar panels from China, the fights were over computer memory chips, called DRAM, and flat-screen monitors from Japan. Over time those battles and the limited government response faded from public memory, with consumers scarcely noticing the changes in the rules.

It's hard to predict how the fight will play out this time around. The U.S. hardly wants a trade war with China, but politicians don't want to be blamed for U.S. job losses in an industry often seen as a flagship for a recovering economy built on expansion of renewable energy.

No matter what the ground rules, competing with China will never be easy. For most consumers, the best hope is that resolution between Washington and Beijing will finally set up an industry that lets many more of us tap into the power of the universal sun.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. He can be reached at 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.