Trade investigation impacting U.S. solar energy industry

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WASHINGTON – A federal investigation into possible trade violations by Asian suppliers of solar panels and components has brought the industry in Nevada and other states to a standstill.

The situation prompted a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev. to seek a meeting with President Joe Biden for a quick resolution.

Commerce Department investigators are reviewing a single complaint from a domestic manufacturer in California to determine whether actions, such as tariffs, need to be imposed.

The probe has delayed shipment of panels from the Asian countries and has severely curtailed installation of systems in solar energy producing U.S. states.

Rosen told the Review-Journal on Friday that the “misguided investigation into potentially adding new solar tariffs is causing massive disruptions to Nevada’s solar industry by delaying and canceling projects, raising prices for consumers and costing thousands of jobs.”

Nevada officials boast that the state is one of the fastest growing producers of solar energy and an important ally in the Biden administration’s push to lessen the nation’s reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

A majority of the roughly 6,100 solar jobs in Nevada are in installation, distribution and maintenance, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

But solar imports from China and Asian countries have been the focus of two administrations, which have slapped tariffs on products over labor and wage concerns.

Repealing tariffs

In February, Rosen appeared at SunRun Solar in Henderson with David Bobzien, director of the Nevada governor’s office of energy, to highlight bipartisan legislation she filed to repeal tariffs on solar panels and cells from China and other Asian countries.

The tariffs were imposed by President Donald Trump in 2018 to boost U.S. manufacturing of the components.

Biden extended those tariffs, because of administration concerns that Chinese products were being dumped on the global market to undercut U.S. development and manufacturing of the products.

Rosen said the tariffs were the wrong approach because U.S. manufacturing could not step up production fast enough to deliver the amount of components needed to supply the growing domestic solar energy industry.

U.S. companies produce about 15 percent of the components currently used in the solar energy industry, she said.

“This is hurting our clean energy economy and our climate action goals, all while failing to incentivize domestic manufacturing,” Rosen said Friday. “We need to repeal the existing job-killing solar tariffs, not add new ones.”

The Commerce Department began its investigation in March into alleged trade violations by four Asian countries, which further halted shipment of components needed by American solar companies.

In the letter to Biden, Rosen said: “Initiation of this investigation is already causing a massive disruption in the solar industry, and it will severely harm American solar businesses and workers and increase costs for American families as long as it continues.”

The May 1 letter initiated by Rosen was signed by 19 other Democratic and Republican senators, including Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

The senators requested a meeting with Biden, and urged him to push for a quick resolve. The White House has acknowledged receipt of the letter, but a meeting has yet to be scheduled.

A White House spokesman referred questions about the investigation to the Commerce Department.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee this week that the department is conducting the investigation under strict criteria set by statute.

She has signaled that political pressure could delay the process further.

California complaint

The investigation was launched after a complaint was filed by Auxin Solar, a San Jose, California-based manufacturer of solar panels.

Investigators have until August 29 to determine if action is warranted.

“The Auxin Solar petition investigation is causing massive disruptions for the solar industry nationally and right here in Nevada,” Dave Ulozas, NV Energy senior vice president of energy supply, said in a statement.

Ulozas said the disruption has led to delay or cancellations of solar projects in the state, “including disrupting four of our projects totaling over 600 megawatts of low-cost solar power.”

During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last month, Rosen grilled Raimondo on the pace of the investigation, and the harm it has caused the domestic solar industry.

“The longer the situation persists, the more severe the damage will be,” Rosen told Raimondo. “Will you consider an expedited determination in this matter?”

“My hands are very tied here,” Raimondo told Rosen. “What I will commit to you is to move as fast as possible consistent with that statute to conduct that investigation.”

Impacts on industry

Rosen said that as a result of the investigation, 83 percent of domestic solar companies have been notified of canceled or delayed panel supply. She said cutting off this supply could risk the loss of 100,000 jobs nationally, including 16,000 in manufacturing.

The investigation also has blunted the Biden administration’s clean energy goals, which were promoted by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm during a stop in Las Vegas last month that highlighted various projects. She was accompanied by Cortez Masto and Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev.

Since then, Granholm told a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May that reaching the Biden administration goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2035 is at risk if the “issue” under investigation by the Commerce Department is not resolved quickly.

The uncertainty and risk created by the investigation impacts both the solar industry and climate change goals, said Matthew Bearzotti, Sierra Club deputy legislative director.

Environmental groups led by the Sierra Club sent a letter to Raimondo this week seeking a quick determination on the validity of the complaint.

The administration’s clean energy goals also have met resistance from Republicans and lawmakers in Congress from states that produce traditional sources of energy like coal, oil and natural gas.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., told Granholm at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing that the Biden administration has blocked increased oil and gas production on federal lands and offshore.

“It’s long past time for the Biden administration to have an energy policy that includes American energy,” Barrasso said.

Meanwhile, the lack of foreign supply has stalled installation of residential rooftop panels, and the collection and storage of solar energy, according to the senators’ letter.

The investigation centers on suppliers in Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.