Commerce Department Investigation Into Solar Imports Must Move Forward — and Not Be Rushed

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
May 05 2022 |
A team of workers install solar panels on a home in Southern California. Getty Images

The United States cannot truly transition to clean energy if we remain dependent on dirty imports from China.

On Tuesday, I took a look at the ongoing Commerce Department investigation into solar panel imports. California-based solar manufacturer Auxin filed a complaint with the agency alleging that China is shipping its solar products through four Asian countries to avoid U.S. tariffs, and Commerce is now looking into the claims.

It’s a fairly straightforward trade case, but solar importers are sounding alarms about it — which makes you wonder what they are so worried about — and even are pressuring officials to shorten the timeline for the case.

While Auxin has bipartisan support for its claim in both the House and Senate, importers are now rallying their allies. On Thursday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about her agency’s budget request, and was asked about the case.

Her answer was hugely disappointing, as she said she was “deeply concerned” about the investigation. This, however, is the kicker: “At stake is 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.”

There is… a lot to unpack here.

First, let’s start with the merits of the investigation.

As we previously explained, the United States invented solar technology, and we used to make around 22% of solar goods sold around the world. Growing solar manufacturing was a bipartisan priority, as both Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama invested heavily in the industry during their time in office. But China’s government set out to dominate solar, and deployed a range of predatory trade practices to take over the industry. The U.S. didn’t mount a counteroffensive in time, and now makes just 1% of global solar products; tariffs on Chinese imports are essential to leveling the playing field for the few U.S. manufacturers that remain.

So when Granholm says she’s concerned about the “smothering of the investment and the jobs and the independence,” she’s not talking about America’s solar manufacturers — they’ve already been smothered! She’s talking about the importers who want to continue to bring cheap solar panels into the country.

There are allegations that China’s government is purposely avoiding those tariffs by shipping goods through third-party countries. At the very least, that deserves an investigation, both to stand up for American manufacturers and to ensure U.S. trade enforcement actions are effectively enforced.

Which brings us to the investigative process itself.

By their very nature, Commerce Department circumvention investigations take time. The agency needs to talk to a whole bunch of people and review a whole bunch of data. When Commerce announced this case earlier this year, it estimated it would take 300 to 365 days.

Believe us — there are a lot of American manufacturers out there who file trade cases and wish the process moved quicker, because it would mean there would be quicker relief. But it doesn’t; to be done properly, investigators need time. It’s vital that to maintain the integrity of these decisions, the investigative process be allowed to play out.

And hey, while everyone is waiting around, maybe U.S. policymakers should focus on strengthening domestic manufacturing of solar products rather than worrying about the timeliness of this specific probe, because…

The United States cannot truly achieve an independent clean energy future if we are importing pollution from overseas.

Remember during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were massive shortages of critical medical supplies like face masks and ventilators? That happened because the United States offshored production of these vital supplies to China, and China’s government blocked exports.

And remember, uh, right now, how there are massive shortages of semiconductors, leading to other product shortages and factory shutdowns? That happened because the U.S. allowed semiconductor production to move overseas. Back in 1990, the U.S. made 37% of the world’s semiconductor supply; we now make 12%.

It’s not out of the question, then, that becoming entirely reliant on imports for solar panels poses some big risks for the United States. China now dominates global production of solar products, and they are America’s No. 1 rival.

The Biden administration set an admirable goal of having half of the nation’s energy needs come from solar by 2050. If the United States becomes reliant on solar panels for our energy needs but has no way to actually manufacture solar panels, what happens if China’s government or other nations decide to cut off exports, as China did with PPE?

Suddenly, the U.S. isn’t so energy independent, is it?

It’s in America’s own national security interest to make more solar products, but it’s also key to actually achieving real progress in addressing climate change. Because while installing more solar panels will likely reduce U.S. emissions, if countries like China are the ones making them, that technology isn’t actually so clean — it is powered by coal.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that China’s solar industry, up and down the supply chain, is likely made with forced labor.

All of this is to say that the Commerce Department investigation must be allowed to move forward in an appropriate manner. And if investigators do find that China’s government is circumventing U.S. tariffs, appropriate trade enforcement measures should be put in place to address it.

Rather than express concern about this investigation, Granholm and other policymakers should put their energy into finding ways to grow and strengthen American manufacturing of solar panels.

Let’s make sure our clean energy future is truly Made in America.