Here’s how a new US protectionist measure backfires on the US solar industry [Update]

The U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) is investigating whether Southeast Asian solar cell makers are using parts made in China that would normally be subject to a tariff. A group of bipartisan senators today joined most of the U.S. solar industry in saying the DOC investigation will devastate solar companies because they depend on imports of solar modules to meet growing demand.

May 2nd: Twenty-two senators today issued a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to expedite the DOC’s investigation into solar panels and cells imported from Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. The bipartisan group wrote:

The initiation of this investigation is already causing massive disruption in the solar industry, and it will seriously harm American solar companies and workers and increase costs for American families as long as it continues.

We urge your administration to quickly review the case and issue an expedited preliminary decision. Such a decision should carefully consider the significant political ramifications and reject the petitioner’s request for retroactivity.

The full letter can be read here.

April 27: According to a new analysis, conducted last week and released today by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), solar installation forecasts for 2022 and 2023 are reduced by 46% due to the DOC investigation. The deal will result in a 24 gigawatt (GW) drop in planned solar capacity over the next two years, which is more solar than industry installed in 2021.

SEIA also collected over 700 survey responses to capture project-level data and the impact felt by businesses.

Four-fifths of survey respondents – 83% – who buy or use photovoltaic modules said they had canceled or delayed the supply of modules.

318 large-scale projects representing 51 GW of solar capacity and 6 GWh of attached battery storage are canceled or delayed. $52 billion in large-scale investments are at risk.

SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper said:

This case is destroying clean energy and needlessly destroying American businesses and workers in its wake.

Trying to help America’s solar industry, but hurt it instead

April 5: The DOC’s investigation into the assembly of crystalline silicon photovoltaic (CSPV) cells in four Southeast Asian countries could take up to a year, and suppliers have indicated they may stop shipments of these country to the United States until a final decision is made.

Auxin Solar, a California-based solar panel maker whose website says it is the “longest-running CSPV producer in the United States,” asked the U.S. Department of Commerce in February to conduct an anti-dumping circumvention investigation. on solar cells from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Auxin says tariffs on solar imports would boost domestic manufacturing. But the majority of U.S. solar companies, as well as the SEIA, oppose the investigation because the U.S. depends on imports of solar modules to meet growing demand.

SEIA has therefore launched a survey of solar companies to measure the impact of the DOC investigation on their activities.

As of 8 a.m. ET today, 74% of the 200 companies surveyed said their panel deliveries had already been canceled or delayed. According to SEIA, 84% of all U.S. solar modules
imports come from all four countries under investigation, and non-Chinese capacity elsewhere is insufficient to profitably meet US demand.

In addition, all solar companies surveyed foresee damage across the value chain, and 100% of domestic manufacturers in particular expect the Southeast Asia investigation to have serious or devastating effects.

The findings of this survey come as the industry faces unprecedented supply chain challenges and price increases. In 2021, solar equipment costs rose 18% and the threat of earlier trade actions led to project delays and cancellations, according to a report by SEIA and Wood Mackenzie.

A later report by Wood Mackenzie found that bypass petitions could eliminate 16 gigawatts of panels from the US supply chain, or two-thirds of all panels installed by the United States in 2021.

SEIA estimates that as a result of this petition, the solar industry will lose 70,000 of its 231,000 jobs.

Abigail Ross Hopper, President and CEO of SEIA, said in an emailed statement today:

We urge the administration to expedite this investigation and end this unnecessary impediment to our clean energy future.

We have said that tariffs are the wrong way to encourage manufacturing and that it will take time and political commitment to move manufacturing to the United States on the scale needed.

The countries named in the petition have been reliable trading partners, and we need their products, at least in the short term, as we fight to establish a sustained and powerful manufacturing presence here in America.

Electrek’s Grasp

This DOC investigation is well-intentioned and poorly executed. A U.S. tariff on goods made abroad will do no good if enough of those goods to meet demand are not made domestically.

It’s nice that Auxin Solar makes CSPV cells, but can it do enough for every solar company in the US that needs it?

US manufacturing of solar cells and panels is to be launched, but this is a major and important operation that will take years to set up.

And as a result, the much-needed growth of the solar industry could come to an abrupt halt, and everyone would lose.

The Biden administration must reconsider this investigation as it shoots its own climate change goals in the foot and crushes the vital solar industry.

Read more: Wind, solar and electric vehicles can prevent catastrophic climate change, says new IPCC report


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