Lawmakers are fighting over a Commerce Department inquiry into solar panel imports that could lead to high tariffs on Chinese imports critical to the solar panel industry.
The issue is not partisan: Democrats and Republicans are on both sides of the issue, with a bipartisan group advocating the investigation itself and the tariffs that could eventually come would wreak havoc on the solar industry.
In an interview with The Hill, Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) said that both the research and the tariffs themselves are “causing a huge disruption” in the solar industry, particularly Nevada, which accounts for most per capita jobs. population of every state.
“We can only supply about 15 percent of the demand for solar panels domestically. So we don’t have the capacity here right now to fulfill all the orders and even complete the projects that have already been outsourced,” Rosen said.
Other Republicans and Democrats say Commerce was right to launch the investigation to protect US jobs and prevent Chinese companies from circumventing existing laws designed to prevent the dumping of cheap products.
“A strong commitment to U.S. manufacturing must be accompanied by good trade enforcement so that investment in U.S. manufacturing, workers and innovation is not undermined by unfair trade practices,” Sens wrote. Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R) wrote to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in March asking them to accept the petition for the investigation.
Writing the investigation in terms of U.S. jobs at stake, Brown and Portman wrote, “Unless legitimate allegations of evasion are addressed, entire domestic industries and thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs will be at risk.”
Commerce accepted the petition from Auxin Solar, a San Jose, California-based solar energy company, in March. It is investigating whether various solar panel component companies in Southeast Asia are using these companies as a cover to evade US tariffs on Chinese companies.
The department had previously rejected a similar petition from the trade group American Solar Manufacturers Against Chinese Circumvention.
Rosen is joined by a group consisting of Sens. Thom Tillis (RN.C.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (DR. I.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) against the probe.
There are no findings yet, but the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a trade group that represents solar companies across the supply chain, has warned that the very existence of the investigation could have profound negative impacts on the industry. In April, the group cut its projections for solar installation in the US by 46 percent.
“While our hope and expectation is that there will be a negative determination” [and] there will be no tariffs imposed on panels… this federal government action has evidence of real policy uncertainty in the United States,” SEIA President Abigail Ross Hopper told The Hill.
Founded in 2008, Auxin claims it produces about 150 megawatts of solar panels per year, a minuscule amount compared to the Chinese companies whose exports provide most of the U.S. solar energy. These companies have a capacity of 5 to 50 gigawatts.
Critics of the SEIA trade group say it includes several Chinese companies as members that are already subject to tariffs for violating US laws. Those companies are now being accused by Auxin of circumventing those tariffs by manufacturing panels in other countries in Southeast Asia.
“If you look closely at SEIA and [the American Clean Power Association]they have Chinese companies as members and they are funded by them,” said Nick Iacovella of the bipartisan trade reform organization Coalition for a Prosperous America.
These members include US subsidiaries of the Chinese companies Jinko Solar, JA Solar and Trina Solar, as well as Hanwha Q Cells, which is headquartered in Korea but manufacturing in China.
“SEIA is working day and night to discredit and undermine this investigation as the Department of Commerce is looking at their companies and members,” Iacovella said. “I don’t know how much clearer it gets. Everyone should be questioning their motives here.”
Lawmakers in both sides have also accused the companies in question of profiting from forced labor by Uyghur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, China. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) noted in a March 2021 letter that Jinko and JA have “publicly stated that they source polysilicon,” a key component in solar panel production, from Xinjiang. . Iacovella is a former Rubio staffer.
Dan Whitten, SEIA’s vice president of public affairs, disputed the characterization in an email to The Hill.
“The allegations of Chinese influence on SEIA are absurd and patently false. Of SEIA’s 60 board companies, all operate in the US, with one company headquartered in China. Like any board member, they have one vote.”
“SEIA represents the US solar and storage industries and American workers, period. Those who suggest otherwise are fundamentally dishonest and act in bad faith,” he said.
Auxin said the arguments that would jeopardize the industry if tariffs were imposed on the imports in question are exaggerated.
“SEIA has always argued that tariffs would undermine the deployment of solar energy. That never happened,” Auxin CEO Mamun Rashid said in a statement to The Hill. “Solar deployment and domestic solar production have risen to historic heights with statutory duties.”
Rosen, along with Moran, has introduced a bill to repeal the Section 201 tariffs that affect imports of solar panel components.
Trump-era tariffs apply to imported solar cells and modules and have long been vocally opposed by SEIA but supported by domestic solar panel manufacturers like Auxin. In February, President Biden extended tariffs for another four years, but relaxed conditions to exempt double-sided panels, a type of panel typically used by larger developers. SEIA said at the time it was “disappointed” with the extension but supported the waiver as a “balanced solution”.
Rosen portrayed the study as potentially risky to a broader agenda of rapid deployment of renewable energy in the US
“We need a green energy future. We do want a sustainable, cleaner way of generating energy. Solar is one of those ways, and we can do that in any state in the country, but we need to have the right kind of policies that allow us to keep building on what’s already on the books, and then the American stimulate production to do what we want. what we need to do to continue to meet our clean energy targets and reduce and lower energy costs,” she said.