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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Gina is not helping the solar energy industry

The Commerce Department's solar probe isn't exactly going well

April Siese, Daily Kos Staff 

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo stressed her department is working as fast as it can but critics believe the solar tariff probe is only hindering the country's renewable goals.

A Commerce Department probe into solar panel tariffs that began its preliminary stages in March has renewable energy advocates and lawmakers concerned that the agency is only hurting the U.S.’ goals of reaching net zero. 

Last week, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo defended the investigation before the Senate Appropriations Committee, claiming her department could very well conclude its preliminary review before hitting its August deadline, though the International Energy Agency has already revised down its renewable capacity forecast for the U.S., citing the Commerce Department investigation as well as a 2021 import ban. 

This week, more than 80 lawmakers signed a letter indicating their frustrations with what they believe is clearly harming U.S. solar expansion.

“We are strong supporters of the domestic solar manufacturing sector, but the tariffs called for in the Auxin petition would not benefit the industry, outside of a few select firms,” the lawmakers wrote. 

It was a request from Auxin, a California-based panel maker, that prompted the Commerce Department to look into “whether solar cells and modules produced in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, using parts and components from [China] and exported to the United States, are circumventing antidumping and countervailing duty orders on solar cells and modules from China,” the Commerce Department wrote in a March announcement

Depending on the Commerce Department’s findings, tariffs of up to 250% may be levied on solar panel parts and panels from those four countries.

Even worse, the findings Auxin presented to the Commerce Department that the agency has since embraced came from misconstrued research provided by BloombergNEF (BNEF), an analysis firm focused on the clean energy transition. 

Canary Media reports that BNEF’s own researchers have pushed back against the way their data was presented. “We do not think Auxin’s use of our data accurately reflects our research and certainly does not reflect our house view,” two BNEF solar analysts told Canary Media.

It is abundantly clear that Auxin is missing information from BNEF’s work, which the company admits, but the data it did obtain appears to have been poorly understood. The BNEF analysts gave Canary Media one example of Auxin missing a key detail in its claims, with Auxin claiming BNEF found that “70% of the actual value of [solar panels] accrues to China where key, pre-assembly steps in the making of the equipment take place, including production of solar-grade silicon, ingots, wafers, and cells.” 

The researchers told Canary Media that the percentage Auxin cites only refers to the so-called “cash cost” of solar panel components.

Canary Media summarizes it like this: “In other words, the value of raw ingredients and components produced in China does not change the fact that manufacturers invested significant capital to build factories in the four other Asian countries.” 

BNEF’s actual findings seemingly go against Auxin’s presentation of its data and could wind up costing the Commerce Department in the long run. In order to even impose such tariffs, the agency must find that China skirted trade restrictions by way of facilities in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam only minimally working on components key to solar panels. 

There’s little doubt that, even if the department is willing to impose its lowest tariff of 50%, there will be challenges to the Commerce Department’s findings if it sides with Auxin.

And the last thing the U.S. needs is any more delays as it transitions away from fossil fuels. Already, the probe has forced a utility in Indiana to keep two of its coal-fired plants online two years longer to account for delays in its solar rollout. And in Colorado, the state’s Public Utilities Commission has already indicated that it may have to renegotiate or delay some of its solar plans, if not outright cancel them.