Biden’s trade plan to kickstart US solar fails to win over industry

President Joe Biden. (Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore |Flickr Commons.)

President Joe Biden’s attempt to defuse a complicated trade dispute that’s paralyzed the US solar industry is drawing swift criticism from some of the very companies the White House had been seeking to appease.

While environmental groups and some companies that develop solar farms and rooftop systems cheered the effort, it failed to win over US panel makers that struggle to compete against Asian rivals. Their opposition reflects the challenge Biden faces when it comes to supporting domestic manufacturers without alienating the companies that rely on low-cost imports. It also underscores the White House’s oft-competing political priorities as it seeks to combat climate change while taking a firm stance against China.

Biden’s plan included invoking emergency authorities to impose a two-year ban on new tariffs for panels imported from four Southeast Asia nations, neutralizing a threat of retroactive duties that had all but frozen construction on new US solar projects. He also used sweeping powers under the Defense Production Act to support domestic manufacturers as well as other US clean-energy industries.

“A two-year delay is hardly clarity the industry is seeking, as they would like this issue to go away or be resolved,” Jeff Osborne, an analyst at Cowen & Co., said in a note Monday. “This approach allows the Biden team to appear to be responsive to repeated requests for intervention. However, the issue may still be challenged in court, and it is unclear on potential impact of tariffs that may be announced on past shipments.”

US manufacturers slammed Biden’s move, saying it does more to support Chinese solar companies than US rivals.

“Today’s proclamation directly undermines American solar manufacturing by giving unfettered access to China’s state-subsidized solar companies for the next two years,” Samantha Sloan, vice president of policy for First Solar Inc., said in an emailed statement. “This sends the message that companies can circumvent American laws and that the US government will let them get away with.”

And some developers also warned that because the actions don’t fully end the trade case, there’s not enough policy stability to plan future projects.

“The lingering threat of tariffs stemming from the ongoing circumvention case will continue to jeopardize our clean energy progress,” said George Hershman, chief executive of SOLV Energy.

The threat of tariffs stemmed from the Commerce Department’s investigation into whether Chinese companies are circumventing decade-old duties by assembling solar cells and modules in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, countries that constitute about 80% of annual panel imports into the US. Manufacturers in the four targeted nations had largely halted shipments to the US, stalling solar projects and prompting at least one utility to warn it would keep a coal plant operating longer than planned.

At issue are antidumping and countervailing duties imposed against China a decade ago to offset subsidization and predatory pricing. The Commerce Department is set to issue preliminary findings in the case by late August.

Solar manufacturers said they were blindsided by the policies.

“It is highly problematic that the administration is apparently declaring a war or similar national emergency as the basis for negating a trade law investigation on solar,” said Tim Brightbill, a trade lawyer and partner at Wiley Rein LLP who has represented solar companies pushing for tariffs. “And it is even more troubling that the administration took this action without any input from domestic solar manufacturers.”

Mamun Rashid, chief executive officer of Auxin Solar Inc., the California-based panel maker that prompted the trade probe, condemned Biden’s action.

“President Biden is significantly interfering in Commerce’s quasi-judicial process,” Rashid said in an emailed statement. “By taking this unprecedented — and potentially illegal — action, he has opened the door wide for Chinese-funded special interests to defeat the fair application of US trade law.”

Biden is invoking emergency authority under nearly century-old US law, while the Commerce Department case is proceeding on a parallel track, a senior administration official told reporters. Under federal trade law, the president can direct duties to be suspended by declaring “an emergency to exist by reason of a state of war or otherwise.”

Some solar developers are cheering the president’s plan, saying it would rapidly spur renewable power projects while delivering a much-needed boost to domestic manufacturing. Heather Zichal, head of the American Clean Power Association, called it “a bold act of leadership” that “recognizes the immediate need to protect middle-class American jobs” while promoting US energy independence.

Biden’s action also drew rare near-unanimous praise from environmental groups, including mainstream conservationists as well as progressives who’ve criticized the president for being too timid in the fight against climate change.

Biden’s executive action follows days of brainstorming by administration officials over how to revive solar and power storage projects hampered by the Commerce Department trade investigation, which had prompted some exporters to halt panel shipments to the US. Although the president is not directly injecting himself in the case — meant to be a quasi-judicial proceeding free from political interference — his decision to waive new duties for two years effectively blunts the tariff threat in the short term, giving time for US manufacturing to ramp up.

The White House is also seeking to use the federal government’s purchasing power to help support American clean energy manufacturers. Biden is directing the federal government to apply domestic content standards when it procures solar systems, including US-manufactured solar photovoltaic components, and use special supply agreements to allow domestic clean electricity providers to more quickly sell their products to the government.

Biden’s manufacturing boost is anchored by action under the 72-year-old Defense Production Act, the same authority wielded by President Harry Truman to make steel for the Korean War and Donald Trump to spur mask production to battle the spread of coronavirus. Biden is authorizing the Department of Energy to use the law to rapidly expand American manufacturing of solar panel parts, building insulation, heat pumps and other gear, according to a White House fact sheet. Power transformers and equipment for making and using fuels generated by electricity also will be targeted, the White House said.

The Defense Production Act move will catalyze finance for clean energy manufacturing including loans and grants, a senior administration official said. At least some of the funding is likely to be made available through an existing Energy Department program, which has more than $40 billion in loans and loan guarantees available.

Presidents dating back to George W. Bush have tried to marshal US solar panel making with a mix of short-lived incentives and punishing trade barriers that at times spurred retaliation instead of a manufacturing renaissance. At one point, there were some 75 major solar parts factories in the US, but most have since shuttered.

Administration officials took pains to emphasize the trade case was continuing. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said she was committed to upholding US trade laws and ensuring American workers have a chance to compete on a level playing field.

“The president’s emergency declaration ensures America’s families have access to reliable and clean electricity while also ensuring we have the ability to hold our trading partners accountable to their commitments,” she said in an emailed statement.

(By Jennifer A Dlouhy, Brian Eckhouse and Ari Natter, with assistance from Dan Murtaugh)

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