Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich is leading a bipartisan charge to push the U.S. Commerce Department to reject a petition to impose new tariffs on solar imports from some Asian countries.
The Commerce Department opened an investigation in late March into solar manufacturing operations in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia that could culminate in new countervailing duties of 50% to 250% on imported solar cells and panels from those countries.
The trade dispute is pushing the U.S. industry into crisis, because those four Asian nations supply more than 80% of the solar modules used in U.S. solar installations, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association. As a result, the association estimates at least 16 gigawatts of new annual solar development in the U.S. could be lost if tariffs are imposed, with up to 70,000 layoffs nationwide.
Heinrich co-led a bipartisan group of 14 senators in a letter last month urging the Commerce Department to not open the trade investigation.
Having failed in that effort, Heinrich is now working with other congressional leaders to lobby for a rapid end to the investigation and rejection of any new tariffs.
“We have to send a clear message to the Biden administration on the need to conclude this as fast as possible,” Heinrich told the Journal on Tuesday. “I’ve had multiple conversations with people in the White House and other federal agencies about the potential for massive layoffs in the solar industry.”
The loss of some 16 GW of solar development is like losing 15 to 20 nuclear power plants worth of new renewable energy, Heinrich added.
“The White House won’t be able to meet its climate change goals if that happens,” Heinrich said. “I believe this issue will be elevated beyond bureaucratic decision-making as more government officials learn what’s truly at stake.”
Heinrich discussed the issue Tuesday morning with local industry leaders, who said the impact is already rippling across solar markets.
That’s because developers need to forecast expenses one to two years in advance. And since they now can’t accurately project costs, utility-scale projects are being postponed or canceled everywhere pending the outcome of the investigation, which may not conclude until April 2023, said Rikki Seguin, executive director of Interwest Energy Alliance, which met with Heinrich.
“It’s hard to overstate the severity of this on the industry,” Seguin told the Journal. “It’s truly devastating.”
A complaint by California-based manufacturer Auxin Solar Inc. triggered the investigation, based on Auxin’s claim that Asian companies are circumventing import tariffs imposed on China by instead using Chinese equipment and components to assemble solar cells and panels in their own countries.
The Commerce Department has until August – when its first “preliminary” case determination is due – to make an expedited decision against tariffs.
“That’s our request to the senator – to push for that outcome,” Seguin said.
The longer the dispute drags on, the more likely layoffs become, said Ryan Centerwall of Affordable Solar, New Mexico’s largest installation firm with nearly 150 employees.
“We’ve had no layoffs yet, but the solar supply pipeline is critical to everything,” Centerwall told the Journal. “Without it, we’ll have no choice but to lay people off.”
Heinrich said jobs at every level are at risk, from solar manufacturing and engineering to design and construction.
“It runs the full gamut,” Heinrich said. “This is undeniably going to create havoc in the industry.”