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By allowing controversial imports, Biden hopes to boost domestic solar industry

Drew Angerer
Getty Images

The U.S. solar industry is reacting to a recent decision by President Joe Biden to temporarily pause tariffs for solar imports from Southeast Asia.

An investigation into whether Chinese solar manufacturers are improperly funneling parts through four Asian countries “had cut solar installation forecasts nearly in half – and done so at a time when the Biden White House’s ambitious clean energy agenda is stalled in Congress,” according to NPR.

In response last week, Biden declared a two-year pause on those tariffs and invoked the Defense Production Act in an effort to jump-start solar installations.

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 U.S. Commerce Department investigation, according to the Associated Press.

Mickey Toro said it was “a great relief” to hear that Biden was hitting pause on the tariffs.

Toro is owner and president of CTEC solar, which developed and built a community solar array in Bloomfield. That project went online in 2019 and to date remains the only operational shared solar array in Connecticut.

Speaking next to his array in Bloomfield, Toro said ever-changing federal policy – compounded by COVID-19 supply chain issues – has made it difficult in recent months to persuade investors to finance local solar projects.

“We call it the ‘solar coaster’ because there’s always many challenges: things coming and going. Policy is here one day, gone the next,” Toro said.

So where is Toro on the solar coaster now?

“We’re on our way up. We’re doing better,” Toro said. “If you asked me a week ago – or two weeks ago – I would have told you we’re on our way down. It happens that fast.”

Biden’s announcement comes as Connecticut has committed to achieving a 100% zero-carbon electric grid supply by 2040. The state legislature also just passed a bill to increase the scope of Connecticut’s slow-to-grow community solar efforts.

All that means more solar projects will – hopefully – be coming soon, said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“This is the fastest-growing area of employment in our energy sector,” Dykes said. “Building solar facilities – and investing in energy efficiency.”

Dykes said local solar projects are needed to combat climate change and to blunt the impact of fossil fuel price volatility.

“Right now we’re experiencing a lot of the challenges of … fossil fuel dependence,” Dykes said. “We’re riding that fossil fuel roller coaster … seeing all of these global dynamics impacting fossil fuel prices and driving up people’s energy costs.”

‘We have not addressed China’s repeated cheating’

But not all domestic solar producers are convinced that Biden’s decision to let the U.S. solar industry temporarily source products from Southeast Asia is a good idea.

Industry leaders and some Republican and Democratic lawmakers believe Biden’s actions could actually end up helping China’s state-subsidized solar companies at the expense of U.S. producers.

As The Conversationpoints out, in recent years, the federal government imposed tariffs on solar imports to try to spur the growth of domestic solar manufacturing.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Commerce Department said it was investigating solar imports from four Southeast Asian countries – Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia.

At issue was whether these countries were routing Chinese solar components in an effort to skirt preexisting tariffs. If found to be the case, that could lead to new retroactive tariffs that could significantly raise prices for U.S. buyers.

As the Associated Press reports, clean energy leaders have warned that the investigation imperiled up to 80% of planned solar projects around the country and could lead to thousands of layoffs.

But Timothy Brightbill, a lawyer who represents domestic solar manufacturers, said Biden was using the pretext of declaring a national emergency to negate 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.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the 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.''

Some Democrats agreed.

“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.”

This story contains information from the Associated Press.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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