Coalition of U.S. Solar Makers Want Tariffs Placed on Imports from Southeast Asian Countries

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Apr 24 2024 |
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The American Alliance for Solar Manufacturing Trade Committee on Wednesday officially filed anti-dumping and countervailing duty petitions with the International Trade Commission and Commerce Department.

A group of seven U.S. solar manufacturers — Convalt Energy, First Solar, Meyer Burger, Mission Solar, Qcells, REC Silicon, and Swift Solar — are banding together to seek tariffs on allegedly unfairly traded solar imports from several Southeast Asian countries.

The American Alliance for Solar Manufacturing Trade Committee is asking the International Trade Commission (ITC) and Commerce Department to investigate “potentially illegal trade practices by Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that are injuring the U.S. solar industry.” While the committee is targeting imports from these nations, it noted in a press release that the companies subject to the investigation “would be primarily Chinese-headquartered companies.”

Tim Brightbill, the lead attorney in the case, told The New York Times that the U.S. solar industry was in a “very precarious” position because of the predatory trade practices of Chinese solar companies. Many of these firms have direct ties to the Chinese state, are heavily subsidized, and use a litany of unfair trade practices — including forced labor — to make their products, which are dumped onto the market at artificially low prices.

“China and Chinese-owned companies are manipulating our domestic market to benefit their economy and national security interests,” Brightbill told the Times. “The United States is overly dependent on an adversary that has weaponized supply chain reliance in the past for an essential energy source.”

It’s been a wild ride for the U.S. solar industry over the past few years. American solar manufacturing was almost entirely wiped out by 2022, as cheap, heavily subsided Chinese imports overwhelmed the U.S. market. But then Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, breathing new life into U.S. industry, with the White House now reporting $141 billion worth of new private investments in clean power, much of it solar.

The problem for U.S. solar makers is the threat of cheap Chinese imports never ceased. To dodge U.S. trade enforcement efforts already on the books, China and Chinese companies began shipping products through third-party countries or setting up facilities there. In fact, the Commerce Department determined in 2023 that Chinese companies were circumventing U.S. tariffs by shipping products through Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam — but because the White House had issued a two-year moratorium on solar tariffs in 2022, the duties did not go into effect.

The moratorium ends in June, but the solar companies say that the Chinese firms found to be transshipping won’t end up paying any tariffs “because their Southeast Asia-based supply chains mean they are no longer in technical violation as outlined in the circumvention decision.” 

That’s one of the things driving the new trade petition. The solar companies argue:

The alleged dumping and subsidization of products made in Southeast Asia to avoid U.S. trade rules has led to a historic glut of solar panels believed to be sold at prices below the cost of production. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that there is a year and a half of stockpiled panels in American warehouses. Imports into the U.S. exceeded installations in 2023 by more than 25 gigawatts, and prices have fallen by more than 50 percent in that time. This anti-competitive, market-distorting behavior undermines the level playing field necessary for U.S. solar manufacturers to compete on their own merits.  

There is growing recognition that China’s massive industrial overcapacity threatens the investments made in a number of critical sectors over the past few years, including electric vehicles and semiconductors. Chinese overcapacity long has been a threat in others, including steel and aluminum.

As the solar companies pointed out on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently said “China’s overcapacity distorts global prices and production patterns and hurts American firms and workers, as well as firms and workers around the world.” And just last week, President Biden promised to triple tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum imports if an investigation finds China is continuing to engage in unfair trade in those sectors.

Now the solar manufacturers are seeking similar remedies for their industry.

“America’s solar manufacturing industry is on the cusp of tremendous growth that will create jobs and change the trajectory of our clean energy transition for decades to come. However, this manufacturing renaissance is being threatened by China’s industrial policy, which has led to massive subsidization in China and Southeast Asia. This is resulting in high volumes of dumping on global markets including the U.S., injuring our domestic producers,” Brightbill said. “We are seeking to enforce the rules, remedy the injury to our domestic solar industry, and signal that the U.S. will not be a dumping ground for foreign solar products.”