In the waning days of 2017, Bozeman-based solar company OnSite Energy purchased a large quantity of photovoltaic panels, enough to cover its existing contracts. Co-founder Orion Thornton says the move was meant to buffer the company — and its customers — from a decision the company knew President Trump was likely to make in January. Sure enough, on Jan. 22, Trump announced a 30 percent tariff on imported panels, spurring industry experts to predict as much as a 10 percent bump in the overall cost of solar installations.
“We bought 250 kilowatts of panels for projects that we already had contracted, so that protected our customers,” Thornton says. “We didn’t want to have to go back to them and say, ‘Hey, this tariff was enacted. We need to renegotiate the contract.’”
The national solar industry response to Trump’s tariff has been less than enthusiastic, with the Solar Energy Industries Association claiming it could result in the delay or cancellation of billions of dollars in solar investments. But the Montana Renewable Energy Association’s Andrew Valainis says Trump’s decision is “more of a speedbump than a roadblock” in Montana. Most of the projects undertaken by Montana-based companies are smaller residential or commercial jobs, making them more adaptable than larger utility-scale installations, which Valainis and Thornton agree will take the hardest hit.
Thornton estimates that, on average, 90 percent of the panels OnSite Energy uses are imported. The company offers its customers the option of paying slightly more for American-made panels, he says, but using imports was never a question of sacrificing quality, since foreign sources like LG and Panasonic “are really solid companies, really good products.” Thornton does acknowledge that the tariff will push prices up on future contracts, “but it’s not going to stop the industry in any regard … Commercial projects are still going to be a viable investment for businesses.”
Lee Tavenner, co-owner of Missoula’s Solar Plexus, says the bulk of the panels his company uses come from Oregon-based manufacturer SolarWorld, which is now clawing its way back from a bankruptcy filing last year. Even though they’re sourced domestically, Tavenner is anticipating the price he pays for panels to increase, based on feedback from his suppliers. By how much, he says, is still unclear, but he doesn’t expect the tariff to be as big a hit to the types of residential and commercial installations Solar Plexus deals with. After all, he says, the panels are only a portion of the cost of going solar — about a quarter of the total, once labor, permitting and other equipment are factored in.
“Even though there’s going to be some price increase,” Tavenner says, “it’s not enough that it should scare you away.”