Employees of MX Solar USA, a manufacturer of solar panels in Somerset, NJ, expressed pride in their company for its stance against what they described as the Chinese solar industry's anti-competitive trade practices, as the company today announced its founding role in the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM). The coalition includes more than 160 U.S. companies with nearly 15,000 American workers backing the antidumping and anti-subsidy cases against China's state-sponsored manufacturers of photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules.
"What China is doing really does negatively affect everyone," says Elijah Sonnier, MX's quality manager. Sonnier left a retail career to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from Rutgers University. After Rutgers, he landed a job at MX Solar, where he worked his way from the production line to his role in quality management, he said. Now, he also is earning a master's degree at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
"Essentially, China is trying to corner the market. They corner the market and push everyone else out, and then they set their own prices," Sonnier says. "If you're going to be for fair trade, well, this isn't it. We've seen this before. We've seen this in many arenas, not just PV modules. I think it's also a national security concern that we're not manufacturing our own goods. When do we take a stand as a country?"
Sonnier described the wrenching experience of parting with fellow employees in a company downsizing, as he believes, due to the Chinese industry's U.S. import drive at artificially low prices. One shift manager, Sonnier said, had worked in manufacturing for 20 years, and after he was laid off, it took him two years to find new work. After reaching a high employment mark of 120 workers, the company is temporarily limiting staffing to essential employees, according to the company.
"We need an opportunity to compete fairly and not just to be pushed into the corner," Sonnier said. "We produce a good product, and MX Solar has viability to build market share. But the forces from China are tremendous. It's challenging. Everybody's worried."
Sales manager Todd Ahern reached MX Solar by way of a bachelor's degree in communications at the University of Maryland, an MBA at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and three solar-industry internships. "I just decided I wanted to do something with meaning, and I had always had an interest in renewables," Ahern said. When his father told him about the job in his native New Jersey, he jumped, leaving a job at a small Maryland installation firm.
Like Sonnier, Ahern remains committed to the company and vast opportunity in the U.S. solar industry: "I truly believe in this industry," he said. But with at least 12 U.S. solar producers closed or downsized in two years, China's export-intensive industrial plan raises serious concerns for MX Solar's employees. "It's just running a lot of companies out of business here. We're losing a lot of manufacturing to unfair competition. If it's really important, we need to do something."
MX is the second founding member of CASM after Helios Solar Works, based in Milwaukee, WI, to go public with their CASM participation in the past week. MX Solar USA has 65MW of annual solar panel production capacity in NJ.
"My company believes in investing in production as well as research and development within the markets we serve, both to improve our products' performance and give back to those markets," said Carlo Santoro, director of business development for MX Solar USA. "U.S. manufacturing creates direct and indirect jobs and pays corporate taxes, among its many economic benefits."
On Dec. 2, the U.S. International Trade Commission unanimously issued a preliminary ruling that Chinese trade practices are harming the U.S. domestic solar industry. The next step will be a preliminary determination by the U.S. Department of Commerce, to be announced March 20, whether to levy countervailing import duties to offset the effects of any illegal Chinese subsidies. On Jan. 30, Commerce issued a preliminary ruling that Chinese importers have mounted a massive, evasive surge in Chinese imports ahead of possible import duties; the ruling means importers of record would have to post bonds or cash deposits on any tariffs not only on ensuing imports but also on imports back to late December.