US solar manufacturers weigh challenge to Biden pause on tariffs

Inside a JinkoSolar Smart Facility. Courtesy: JinkoSolar

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. solar manufacturers say they are considering legal challenges after President Joe Biden declared a two-year pause for tariffs on solar imports from Southeast Asia.

Biden also invoked Defense Production Act Monday as the White House sought to jumpstart solar projects that had been slowed down or abandoned in the midst of a Commerce Department investigation into possible trade violations involving Chinese goods.

The White House said Biden’s actions would boost an industry crucial to his climate change-fighting goals while not interfering with or shutting down the Commerce investigation.

But some domestic producers, including a California company that filed a complaint with Commerce about unfair competition from Chinese imports, said Biden’s actions would help China’s state-subsidized solar companies at the expense of U.S. manufacturers.

“President Biden is significantly interfering in Commerce’s quasi-judicial process,” said Mamun Rashid, CEO of Auxin Solar, which filed the complaint with Commerce earlier this year.

“By taking this unprecedented – and potentially illegal – action, (Biden) has opened the door wide for Chinese-funded special interests to defeat the fair application of U.S. trade law,” Rashid said in a statement.

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Rashid stated that Auxin wasn’t consulted before the White House announced. He also said that the White House did not contact other U.S. producers. Auxin is currently “evaluating all of our legal options,” he said.

Timothy Brightbill, a lawyer representing domestic solar manufacturers, stated Tuesday that Biden used the pretext to declare a national emergency in order to end an ongoing trade investigation.

“That is unprecedented, it is bad law and it is extremely bad, short-sighted policy, because it only makes us more dependent on Chinese-owned solar companies,” Brightbill said. The U.S. industry contends that China has essentially moved operations to four Southeast Asian countries — Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia — to skirt strict anti-dumping rules that limit imports from China.

“The White House’s failure to consult with any American solar manufacturing companies before taking this unprecedented action is telling and an embarrassment,” Brightbill said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that Biden was responding to a legitimate emergency, “in this case the threat to the availability of sufficient electricity-generation capacity to meet expected customer demand.”

Biden’s actions “will help ensure that we have the solar capacity additions necessary to meet our electricity and generation needs,” she said, calling the actions ”particularly urgent given the impact of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine on the global energy supply,” as well as the intensifying impacts of climate change.

U.S. solar installers and environmental groups cheered Biden’s action, saying it would restore certainty and stimulate solar installations that have ground to a halt amid the Commerce inquiry, which includes potentially steep penalties that could be imposed retroactively.

Clean energy leaders have warned that the investigation — which could result in retroactive tariffs of up to 240% —imperiled up to 80% of planned solar projects around the country and could lead to thousands of layoffs.

Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said Biden’s actions would “protect existing solar jobs, lead to increased employment in the solar industry and foster a robust solar manufacturing base here at home.”

Continue reading: Who is Auxin Solar and What are their Secrets? Exclusive interview with Auxin Solar CEO.

A Biden administration official, who asked not to be identified to discuss internal deliberations, said Biden’s decision was driven by White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy and climate envoy John Kerry, along with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. The officials all worried that the Commerce inquiry jeopardized Biden’s goal to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035. The key component of this agenda is solar power.

The official stated that Biden was not looking to stop the Commerce inquiry.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Biden’s action “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.”

While Democrats cheered the announcement, many Republicans dismissed it as a gift for China.

Biden announcement “amounts to a two-year amnesty for the Chinese Communist Party for any violations of our trade laws relating to solar panel imports. This action will help China and harm American solar panel manufacturers and American workers,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Some Democrats were more open than others.

“Despite the U.S. leading the world in solar innovation, today 80% of the world’s solar panels are made in China — that has to change,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, whose state is home to the largest U.S. solar-panel manufacturer.

“We have not invested in building up American capacity the way we should, and we have not addressed China’s repeated cheating,” Brown said in a statement. ”On all these decisions, American solar manufacturers and their workers must be at the table.”

Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada, who has pushed Commerce to conclude its investigation, called Biden’s announcement a positive step that will save American solar jobs, including thousands in her state.

“The risk of additional tariffs on imported solar panels would have been devastating for American solar projects, the hundreds of thousands of jobs they support, and our nation’s clean energy and climate goals,” she said.