There are many factors contributing to the widespread supply chain disruptions harming industries worldwide. Import tariffs and a global pandemic are at the heart of the issue. For the photovoltaic solar industry, there are also alleged human rights violations and additional trade regulations preventing the import of widely produced solar modules.
While the U.S. solar industry breaks installation records year after year, solar equipment manufacturers and suppliers are navigating a supply chain riddled with bottlenecks. Import tariffs on specific solar modules have increased the price of that vital component. Then, the alleged forced labor practices in Xinjiang province of China have prevented solar panels containing polysilicon harvested there from reaching U.S. soil. China is responsible for producing 80% of the world’s polysilicon, and half of that comes from Xinjiang.
In February 2018, the Trump Administration tariffed crystalline silicon cells and modules and AC/integrated modules by 30% with the intent to bolster domestic module manufacturing. That tariff is scheduled to sunset in 2022, its fourth year. But the International Trade Commission recommended another The tariffs have repeatedly changed for bifacial modules, with the most recent ruling exempting them again.
COVID-19 has posed an existential threat to the personnel responsible for maintaining the supply chain, and with the proliferation of another highly contagious strain of the virus, that squeeze on the supply chain remains indefinitely. During the 2020 COVID lockdowns, manufacturing ceased or was curbed and substantial shipments by sea were canceled. The shipping industry is still recovering.
“The supply chain has become less dependable,” said Jonathan Doochin, CEO of solar equipment distributor Soligent. “It has become less dependable, and sourcing products in a timely fashion with accuracy across a multitude of SKUs has required specific purchasers to understand the microeconomic factors in supply chain issues, in specific verticals and specific product lines. Though each one faces similar issues, each supply chain is a bit different with its own quirks.”
This supply chain chokehold comes at a time when federal legislators are attempting to pass the Build Back Better Act, an economic overhaul that includes incentives and goals that would greatly increase solar deployment in the country.
Increasing consumer demand in solar and federal renewable energy goals are putting a strain on other raw materials necessary for manufacturing accessory technologies for solar installations. Warehouses and distributors have had to increase purchases of solar equipment where possible, making it harder to source hardware.
“Availability matters. If somebody shorts on availability in this market, as a manufacturer it can change the outcome of the market share pretty substantially,” Doochin said.
While deliberation on the BBB Act continues, the U.S. solar industry pushes forward. SEIA and Wood Mackenzie reported in September that solar accounted for 56% of new electricity capacity installed in the first half of the year in the United States.
Despite a monumental need for deployment, many of the affected solar modules will remain in shipping yards. Manufacturers will try to find ways to meet that demand.
“The world is facing an inflationary cycle that, without price-fixing salaries, will inflate input cost,” Doochin said. “We’re in a secular inflationary cycle that reminds me of the 1970s.”