The Biden administration pre-emptively halted any penalties from the case in June, prompting critics to say the administration had shortcut its own trade rules
WASHINGTON — U.S. officials have determined that four of eight major Chinese solar companies under investigation in recent months tried to evade tariffs by funneling products into the United States through Southeast Asian countries, in a trade case that has pitted clean energy advocates against domestic solar panel manufacturers.
The decision applies to the Thailand operations of Canadian Solar and Trina Solar, as well as BYD Cambodia and Vina Solar Vietnam, according to documents published by the Department of Commerce Friday morning.
The ruling centered around esoteric trade laws that aim to protect American manufacturers from unfairly cheap foreign products. But more broadly, the case is related to an increasingly difficult question confronting U.S. policymakers: how quickly the United States can expect to wean itself off China’s supply of materials that are crucial for the American economy, including the solar panels that are needed for a transition to green energy.
The investigation, initiated at the request of a small California-based company named Auxin Solar, centered on whether Chinese companies have been trying to bypass tariffs that the United States imposed on cheap solar panels imported from China. In recent years, Chinese solar companies have significantly expanded their manufacturing presence in Southeast Asian countries that do not face the same tariffs.
The trade case rests on whether the Chinese companies are actually using these Southeast Asian countries as a significant site of manufacturing, or if they are just making minor changes to products that are largely made in China to try to get around U.S. trade rules.
Other companies that were also under investigation — namely New East Solar Cambodia, Hanwha Q CELLS Malaysia, Jinko Solar Malaysia and the Vietnam operations of Boviet Solar — were found not to be violating U.S. trade rules.
Typically, companies that are found to be circumventing U.S. tariffs would immediately be subject to higher duty rates to bring their products into the United States. But in an unusual measure, the Biden administration in June pre-empted those higher duties by announcing a two-year pause on any tariff increases on solar products.
The administration said its decision to halt additional tariffs would help ensure that the United States has enough solar panels as it tries to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in the months to come. The Biden administration has set an ambitious goal of generating 100 percent of the nation’s electricity from carbon-free energy sources by 2035, a goal that may require more than doubling the annual pace of solar installations.
But domestic manufacturing groups have criticized the president’s decision to halt any imposition of tariffs, saying he is failing to enforce America’s trade rules and crack down on unfair Chinese practices.
Solar importers, too, have expressed dissatisfaction with the decision, saying that the two-year pause is not enough time to establish sufficient manufacturing capacity outside China to meet rising U.S. demand.
Enormous planned investments in solar energy have raised the stakes of the debate. The Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping new climate law signed by President Biden in August, provides roughly $37 billion in incentives for companies to produce solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other crucial minerals in the United States, aiming to reverse the longstanding migration of clean energy manufacturing to China and elsewhere.
The clash is the latest chapter in a decade-long conflict between the United States and China over the solar industry. In 2012, the United States began imposing duties on Chinese solar panels, arguing that Chinese manufacturers were unfairly selling their products in the United States at prices below the cost of production. Chinese solar manufacturers shifted their operations to Taiwan instead, but the United States soon expanded its tariffs to apply to Taiwan, as well.
In recent years, Chinese companies have set up new manufacturing operations in Southeast Asia, and exports of solar products to the United States from Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia have exploded. In many cases, these factories appear to rely on raw materials sourced largely from China, like polysilicon.
That business model has proved problematic in more ways than one. The U.S. government has found that major Chinese producers of polysilicon and solar products are guilty of using forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China and has banned any products using that polysilicon from the United States.
Auxin Solar and other domestic manufacturers have also said that the boom in business in Southeast Asia was an attempt by Chinese companies to evade the duties that the United States had imposed on Chinese products.
In a preliminary decision on the case on Friday, officials at the Commerce Department agreed, at least for some cases. The Commerce Department will now require solar companies exporting to the United States from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia to certify that a significant proportion of their materials are coming from outside China. Otherwise, companies in those countries will be subject to the same duties paid by their Chinese suppliers starting in 2024. The Commerce Department will continue to review the case and issue its final decision on the matter on May 1, 2023.
Mamun Rashid, the chief executive of Auxin Solar, said in a statement that the findings “largely validated and confirmed Auxin’s allegations of Chinese cheating.”
“We will continue to press forward in these cases as they continue to make sure all trade cheats are playing by the rules,” he said.
Abigail Ross Hopper, the chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, which opposed the investigation, said the group was “obviously disappointed that commerce elected to exceed its legal authority” by ruling against the imports from Southeast Asia.
“This decision will strand billions of dollars’ worth of American clean energy investments and result in the significant loss of good-paying, American, clean energy jobs,” she said, adding, “This is a mistake we will have to deal with for the next several years.”
Major solar importers have complained for months of difficulties obtaining enough solar panels to meet growing demand for clean energy solutions. George Hershman, the chief executive of SOLV Energy, a large solar contracting firm that has provided engineering, construction and maintenance services for projects across 26 states, said the decision was likely to disrupt an industry that has already been reeling from supply chain constraints in recent years.
“The upside is that commerce took a nuanced approach to exempt a number of manufacturers rather than issuing a blanket ban of all products from the targeted countries,” Mr. Hershman said. “While it’s positive that companies will be able to access some of the crucial materials we need to deploy clean energy, it’s still true that this ruling will further constrict a challenged supply chain.”
Some members of the Biden administration are sympathetic to these arguments. In a hearing in May before the Senate Energy Committee, Jennifer M. Granholm, the secretary of energy, said the investigation put at stake “the complete smothering of the investment and the jobs and the independence that we would be seeking as a nation to get our fuel from our own generation sources.”
The investigation was under the purview of the Department of Commerce, not the Department of Energy, she said. “But I am certainly deeply concerned about the goal of getting to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 if this is not resolved quickly.”
But the Biden administration’s decision to effectively neutralize the trade investigation by halting any additional tariffs that would result from it until June 2024 has also attracted its share of criticism.
Along with the small group of solar manufacturers who do not have ties to China, groups that lobby in favor of domestic manufacturing have protested the Biden administration’s taking action in a type of trade decision that is typically independent and quasi-judicial.
“This is illegal activity that is directly harming our companies. That’s why we have trade laws,” said Nick Iacovella, the communications director for the Coalition for a Prosperous America, which called Friday for the Biden administration to rescind its emergency declaration halting the tariffs. “There’s absolutely no reason we should allow the Chinese to continue illegal activity for two years.”
In a letter to the Biden administration in July, Democratic lawmakers, including Daniel T. Kildee of Michigan, also criticized the decision to pause the tariffs, saying it would undercut “existing and planned domestic solar manufacturing investments, hurting American workers and companies.”
Trade remedy laws are one of the only tools available to defend American manufacturers and “should not be undermined,” they wrote.
But other lawmakers called on Friday for an extension of the two-year pause on tariffs. Eight Democratic senators, led by Jacky Rosen from Nevada, said solar projects needed access to more basic components to operate.
The debate is taking on increasing urgency now that the United States is preparing to make huge investments in its clean energy industry, through bills such as the Inflation Reduction Act.
Analysts say it will still take time for the United States to be independent of foreign solar imports. In 2021, the United States had the capacity to manufacture roughly 7.5 gigawatts’ worth of solar modules a year, according to industry figures.
In the wake of the passage of the new climate law, several companies have announced plans to increase that capacity by another 20 gigawatts a year over the coming decade, according to ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington research firm.
But solar companies are expected to install far more than that — nearly 40 gigawatts worth of solar capacity in 2023, according to government forecasts — spurred on by other tax breaks for solar power in the new climate law. And the country still lacks the capacity to produce solar cells and wafers, key components that are primarily produced overseas.
“Therefore, domestic solar panel manufacturers appear likely to rely heavily on an overseas supply chain after” any tariffs are potentially put in place by the end of 2024 as a result of the Commerce Department’s decision, the analysts at ClearView concluded.