Rep. Tim Ryan Wants to Close a Buy American Loophole for Solar Power

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Aug 15 2022 |
An industrial scale solar field installation in Rosamond, Calif. Getty Images

Right now, Buy American only applies to taxpayer-funded purchases of solar panels. But the federal government actually receives most of its solar power via power purchase agreements.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) wrote to President Biden last week urging him to take executive action to close a government loophole to ensure Buy American preferences apply when the federal government purchases solar power.

Currently, Buy American only applies to solar panel procurement, meaning actual purchases of solar panels. But the government gets most of its solar power via solar power purchase agreements (SSPAs), in which power is sourced from third-party solar panels, and there’s no requirement in place to ensure those third-party panels are manufactured domestically.

Ryan introduced legislation to close this loophole in June, called the “Ensuring America Gets Legitimate Energy Sourced, Originating, and Leased at Home Reliably (EAGLE SOLAR) Act.” The congressman wrote to Biden on Thursday asking him to sign an executive order expanding Buy American to SSPAs.

“The federal government cannot continue to rely on adversarial nations that engage in unfair trade practices for solar energy, a technology that was invented in the U.S. at Bell Labs in 1954,” Ryan wrote, noting that the “federal government has stood idly by as our domestic solar manufacturing capacity has dwindled due to the anti-competitive and market-distorting policies of the People’s Republic of China.”

We’ve covered the challenges facing the U.S. solar manufacturing industry at length over the past year, including the Biden administration’s decision to pause tariffs for two years on solar imports despite an ongoing Commerce Department investigation into imports from four countries (a move that Ryan described in his letter as “rendering toothless a critical measure for getting the domestic solar manufacturing industry back on its feet.”)

Still, solar manufacturers appear hopeful that investments made in the Inflation Reduction Act will provide a big boost for domestic industry, and it’s clear that the United States must increase its solar production capabilities ASAP.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has begun enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and imports are “piling up” at U.S. ports because they are suspected of being made with forced labor. Nobody should be surprised by this, as researchers have found forced labor is prevalent throughout China’s solar supply chain.

Instead of bending the law to allow these imports in, the United States needs to do a whole lot more to increase its own solar production so we don’t find ourselves reliant on solar imports linked to human rights abuses. Strong trade enforcement is vital to this effort — and so is Buy American.

The EAGLE SOLAR Act is a step in the right direction, and the Biden administration would be wise to enact it through an executive order. All of the solar power used to power the federal government should come from American-made solar panels.

There’s a whole lot more that Biden and his team can do to strengthen Buy American when it comes to solar (and frankly, a whole lot of other industries) and support domestic manufacturers and workers.

For example, the administration must work to close other loopholes that allow for component and subcomponent parts of products to be foreign-made, which can result in end products that technically qualify under Buy American even though they are made with 100% of foreign components. And when it comes to sourcing clean energy, we shouldn’t just think about solar. The Alliance for American Manufacturing recently urged the Biden administration to require U.S.-produced steel and other inputs for offshore wind leases, ensuring American-made materials are used in the “fabrication of offshore facilities and accompanying infrastructure.”

As Ryan notes in his letter to Biden, American solar makers and workers already face an uphill battle against foreign competitors like China, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deploys unfair trade practices like government subsidies and state-owned enterprises to dominate global industry (on top of the rampant use of forced labor). The CCP’s playbook has worked, as China now controls more than 80% of global solar production and up to 95% of some elements needed to make solar panels, Ryan writes.

Solar is both an energy issue and a national security issue. As the United States transitions to clean energy, we cannot find itself dependent on our top geopolitical adversary for our energy needs.

Given the odds that American manufacturers and workers already face, the federal government must do everything it can to support domestic production. It seems like an obvious first step for the Biden administration to ensure that all of the solar power used by the government — whether it be from panels on government buildings or power sourced from third-party vendors — is Made in America.