A trade disagreement with China involving tariffs designed to protect domestic industries and thwart cheap imports rapidly escalates, with retaliatory measures hitting companies that considered themselves bystanders, costing them sales and employees their jobs.
It sounds like the dystopian economic outcome trade experts have been warning is ahead if the United States’ current disputes with China play out the way they fear. But there’s already a long-running trade dispute that has, through a round of retaliatory measures, cost jobs in Washington.
REC Silicon is a Norwegian company that operates a giant chemical refinery in Moses Lake, pictured above. Its chief product is polysilicon, a key component in making electricity-generating photovoltaic cells for solar-energy panels.
Imports of low-cost panels have been a boon for homeowners looking to install solar-energy systems — not to mention the companies that install them — but they’ve been ruinous for many U.S. panel producers, which pushed the government to impose a series of tariffs. China retaliated with its own tariffs on polysilicon.
That move was bad news for REC Silicon, which says limited access to the Chinese market has cut its revenue by 70 percent since 2011, which happens to be the year after REC Silicon completed a $1.7 billion expansion and modernization project at Moses Lake. Now, three-quarters of the capacity at Moses Lake is idled. REC Silicon announced production cuts and 100 layoffs in early July.
REC Silicon has been pressing American trade officials to work out a comprehensive settlement to the solar trade fight that would include polysilicon imports, but so far little progress has been made.
What happens if there’s no resolution? Tore Torvund, REC Silicon’s president and CEO, was noncommittal on a conference call with reporters and investors as to whether the company would consider shutting down production entirely at Moses Lake.