ZEBULON, N.C. — At this century-old farm just outside Durham, symmetrical rows of shining blue solar panels have replaced the soybeans and tobacco that Tommy Vinson and his family used to grow here. It is one of many solar farms that have sprung up around North Carolina, transforming a state long battered by global offshoring into the second-largest generator of solar electricity after California.
“It’s still reaping a very good harvest,” said April Vinson, who is married to Tommy. “It’s just not a traditional kind of farm.”
Across North Carolina, textile factories and tobacco farms have disappeared, giving way to fields of solar panels.
But for those venturing into solar farming like Mr. Vinson, the future of this vibrant industry is now cloudy. On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it would impose steep tariffs on imported solar panels, which could raise the cost of solar power in the years ahead, slowing adoption of the technology and costing jobs.
Mr. Trump has long championed trade barriers as a way to protect United States manufacturers from foreign competitors. On Monday, he also slapped tariffs on imported washing machines, and his advisers say additional measures on steel, aluminum and other products will soon be coming.
“Our action today helps to create jobs in America for Americans,” Mr. Trump said on Tuesday in the Oval Office.
The two solar companies that had sought the tariffs, Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, argue that low-cost imports have decimated American manufacturing of solar cells and modules in recent years. Today, 95 percent of the solar panels used in the United States are imported from countries like Malaysia and South Korea, and the companies contend that tariffs are needed to protect the nation’s remaining solar factories.
“Today the president is sending a message that American innovation and manufacturing will not be bullied out of existence without a fight,” Suniva said on Monday.
But while the tariffs may help domestic manufacturers, they are expected to ripple throughout the industry in ways that may ultimately hurt American companies and their workers. Energy experts say it is unlikely that the tariffs will create more than a small number of American solar manufacturing jobs, since low-wage countries will continue to have a competitive edge.
Solar manufacturing now represents just a fraction of the overall jobs that have developed around the solar industry. More than 260,000 Americans are employed in the sector, but fewer than 2,000 of those employed in the United States are manufacturing solar cells and modules, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Far more workers are employed in areas that underpin the use of solar technology, such as making steel racks that angle the panels toward the sun. And the bulk of workers in the solar industry install and maintain the projects, a process that is labor-intensive and hard to automate.
The tariffs the president announced start at 30 percent next year and ultimately fall to 15 percent by the fourth year. In each of the four years, the first 2.5 gigawatts of imported solar cells will be exempted from the tariff.
But by raising the cost of one all-important ingredient, the tariffs could make solar power less competitive with other sources of energy, like gas and wind, resulting in the construction of fewer solar projects. On Tuesday, the Solar Energy Industries Association said that the president’s action would result in the loss of roughly 23,000 jobs in the solar industry this year, as well as the delay or cancellation of billions of dollars of investments.
At the Wakefield solar farm, the five-megawatt project on the Vinson family’s land, the cells that collect solar energy are imported — they were manufactured by JA Solar, a Chinese company, which makes cells and panels in China and Malaysia.
But the steel frames that the panels rest on are American made, manufactured by RBI Solar, which is based in Cincinnati. The steel that RBI Solar used to make these racks is also American, bought from Worthington Industries in Ohio and Attala Steel in Mississippi.
The project was developed and is now operated by Cypress Creek Renewables, a growing company that employs engineers, electricians and drone pilots in a new glass and brick office building in Durham. It was built by Horne Brothers Construction, which at the project’s peak hired about 50 people to drive piles and install the solar panels.
And then there are the Vinsons, the farming family who now have a steady income from leasing their land that allowed Tommy’s mother, Martha, to comfortably retire.
On a brisk day this month, the Vinsons sidestepped puddles of melting snow as they walked through rows of solar panels. But the sun was still shining, and the air above the panels shimmered with heat. Built on a 30-acre site, the project now produces enough power for 1,000 homes — including, potentially, that of the Vinsons, who live just a mile away.
In North Carolina, state laws and tax incentives that favor solar projects selling power directly to the electrical grid have helped the industry expand to the point where it now powers more than 400,000 homes and employs around 7,000 people.
“Everything you see here, with the exception of the module, was built in America,” said Tom Kosto, the executive vice president of Horne Brothers Construction.
Mr. Kosto’s company has expanded in the last three years to 350 full-time employees, from just 30, and he said he planned to hire 100 more people this year. He pays his employees an average of $17.31, with benefits. But he said the tariffs would force his company to cut back on its expansion plans.
“We’re a profitable company, but with one stroke of the pen, they can take that away,” Mr. Kosto said. “All you’re doing is you’re putting thousands of jobs at risk for jobs that aren’t coming back.”
The move is expected to hit utility-scale solar projects like this one, which sell their electricity to power companies, particularly hard. Home and business owners may decide to continue buying solar panels for their rooftops, even if the price is a little higher. But when solar projects sell to a utility company, they compete with other sources of energy, and every cent counts.
Over the last eight years, an influx of cheap imported panels has driven down the cost of solar projects by 85 percent, according to Lazard, a financial advisory company. As a result, the number of solar installations has soared to 12 gigawatts last year, from less than one gigawatt in 2010.
While the tariffs are likely to slow the adoption of solar power in the United States, they will not entirely halt the industry. An analysis by GTM Research found that solar installations will continue to rise from 2018 to 2022, though there will be 11 percent fewer panels installed as a result of the tariffs.
One reason for the muted effect: Solar cells and modules account for one-third or less of the overall cost of solar systems, and the industry has been relentlessly cutting the costs of all components. All told, the tariffs will increase the cost of utility-scale solar projects by about 10 percent and residential rooftop systems by just 3 percent — raising them roughly to prices seen two years ago.
But even a small price increase could slow the industry’s growth in states where solar already faces fierce competition from cheap natural gas, such as Florida, Georgia, South Carolina or Texas. “In the Southeast in particular, we were just starting to see solar compete at the margins with natural gas,” said MJ Shiao, a solar analyst at GTM Research.
Duke Energy, a major utility company in North Carolina, said Tuesday that the tariff would cause it to carefully evaluate the economics of each of its solar projects. The company currently owns more than 800 megawatts of solar power capacity and had planned to build and buy more than 3,000 megawatts in the next five years.
Many analysts say the tariff may fall short of its goal of reviving solar manufacturing in the United States. While at least one company has reportedly expressed interest in opening a 1,000-worker module assembly plant in Jacksonville, Fla., that is likely to be a rare case.
“This tariff only puts module prices back to where they were in 2015 or 2016, and U.S. manufacturers weren’t competitive then,” said Varun Sivaram, an expert on solar power at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In the meantime, the companies involved with the long rows of solar panels that have cropped up on the Vinson’s land — Cypress Creek, the project’s designer; RBI Solar, which made the mounting system; and Horne Brothers Construction — expect to be hurt by the measure.
“Every percentage point of tariff is going to mean projects which will no longer be built, because they are no longer economically viable,” said Matthew McGovern, the chief executive of Cypress Creek Renewables. “We’ll lose projects, no question.”
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