President Donald Trump's imminent decision to impose trade protections on solar panels will have repercussions in Butte, according to REC Silicon company officials.
More than 300 of REC Silicon's employees, including those in Butte, signed a letter sent to the White House this week. The letter requests that Trump negotiate with China to re-open the doors for the solar panel industry.
A trade war began with China over materials used to make solar panels under the Obama administration in 2014. This has had repercussions for REC Silicon, bringing production levels at its Moses Lake, Washington, plant down to 50 percent and leading to rounds of layoffs, said Francine Sullivan, vice president of business development, from Washington D.C. Thursday. REC Silicon's Moses Lake plant manufactures solar-grade polysilicon, which is used to manufacture solar panels.
The Butte-based REC Silicon plant, in the Montana Connections Business Development Park southwest of Butte, has also been affected by the trade war. Though the Butte plant manufactures electronic-grade polysilicon for the electronics industry, it laid off about 30 employees last fall, bringing its number of workers down to around 200.
Now, Trump is considering imposing tariffs on solar panel imports. If Trump imposes those tariffs, it would escalate the trade war with China and hurt the solar-grade polysilicon market, say REC Silicon company officials.
"With your upcoming decision, you have a unique opportunity to create a comprehensive trade win for U.S. interests — including both U.S. producers of solar (panels) as well as producers of polysilicon," REC Silicon employees wrote in the letter to Trump.
The White House neither confirmed if it got the letter nor did it respond to The Montana Standard's questions. However, a White House spokesperson via email said several trade-related statutory deadlines are approaching and that announcements would be forthcoming.
Last summer, the U.S. International Trade Commission began an investigation into the trade war with China. The commission concluded last fall that solar panels imported into the U.S. are "a substantial cause of serious injury … to the domestic industry." By statute, the president has 60 days to take action on the commission's report. Trump is expected to make that decision soon.
The REC Silicon letter says the company and the industry "have been devastated" by the trade war.
"China has blocked our exports from the Chinese market, which represents 80 percent of the global demand," the letter states.
Norway-based REC Silicon invested $1.7 billion in 2010 in the Moses Lake plant, according to the letter and company officials. The letter says the Moses Lake and Butte plants previously employed more than 900 workers combined.
But due to rounds of layoffs at Moses Lake, its numbers are down to around 230 workers.
"Butte production is not down," Sullivan told the Standard. "But the whole company is under enormous pressure. There's not enough buffer in the company for Butte to not be completely unaffected."
Sullivan said that both the electronics and the solar markets are growing. If the trade war comes to an end with Trump's imminent action, the company can "get back to business."
"We have expansion opportunities for both plants we can't execute on," Sullivan said of the current situation. "There are lots of things we'd like to do, but with no money to do those things. … Butte would definitely benefit, and we would grow there."
REC Silicon also sent a copy of the letter to Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, Republican Sen. Steve Daines, Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, and Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte.
All of Montana's top elected officials voiced support for REC Silicon.
Bullock sent his own letter to Washington D.C. officials in December, stating that "finding an agreement and settling this trade dispute is a potential win for the U.S. and China."
Daines, through his press secretary, wrote that he is "strongly urging the administration to resolve this trade dispute quickly and in a way that protects America's interests and jobs."
Tester, through his press secretary, wrote that "the workers at REC Silicon produce a world-class product.
"This administration has talked about providing American businesses with a fair shake, well now it is time to deliver … now we have an opportunity to protect hundreds of good paying jobs by striking a deal to restore their access to the world's largest market," Tester wrote.
Gianforte also weighed in, through his press secretary, by saying in writing that "solar trade disputes should be handled in a comprehensive manner that addresses harmful trade practices and protects American silicon producers, like REC Silicon, from retaliation."
Sullivan said Trump could turn things around.
"We are asking that Trump take advantage of this opportunity to solve the trade war. It's an opportunity to incentivize the Chinese to relieve the duties," Sullivan said.