The consequences within the industry were significant.
The Commerce Department defended it as a transparent and necessary process, but several experts and solar industry executives told CNN that it also essentially froze most U.S. solar imports due to the threat of high, retroactive tariffs.
“With this administration and this much support, we are in a position to lay off people in the renewable energy industry,” George Hershman, CEO of SOLV Energy, told CNN. “As you say all those things we agree with, we’re broken because we literally can’t buy the module today. It’s so frustrating.”
The investigation was launched after a small U.S. company, Auxin Solar, filed a complaint in February. Auxin CEO Mamun Rashid told CNN the complaint was “existential” for his company.
“When the prices of finished slabs from Southeast Asia fall below our material prices, U.S. manufacturers cannot compete,” Rashid said, adding that “if foreign manufacturers circumvent U.S. law and harm U.S. manufacturers like Auxin Solar, it needs to be addressed.” . “
Rashid told CNN that it was “sad” that the frustration was directed at his company and not at “foreign suppliers” who he said were circumventing US law. Rashid also noted that Auxin “is here and can increase rapidly to meet utility needs within 2 to 3 quarters if we have an order today.”
Solar industry leaders have communicated with the Department of Commerce and also conveyed their concerns about the investigation to Biden’s top climate officials – including McCarthy and U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry – a person familiar with the talks said.
“The administration has been in contact with and cooperates with all types of solar stakeholders, including trade associations, but also workers’, communities and NGOs,” a White House official told CNN.
The Commerce investigation comes after last year’s ban on solar panels and parts suspected of being linked to forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province.
The Department of Homeland Security ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection to issue a temporary release order banning the import of Chinese company Hoshine Silicon Industry Co., after the government said the company was using forced Uighur labor.
It is obvious that the industry absolutely had to solve all the concerns about forced labor, but the implementation of that [order] it was far from smooth, “Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Association, told CNN.
In ports across the country, CBP agents seized and detained all solar products they suspected were related to Hoshine, unless companies could prove they were not.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics provided to CNN record that the agency retained 734 shipments worth $ 246 million, which, according to the agency, is only 1.86% of the total value of total solar energy imports to the United States. But Hershman said the order ultimately led to a terrifying effect across the industry, with companies suspending deliveries for fear of being caught in an oversized network in U.S. ports.
“If you have captured materials, you don’t want to send any more,” Hershman said.
Solar executives and industry analysts told CNN that while the CBP order was eventually resolved with a good outcome for the industry, the impact of the Commerce investigation is like a blow.
“Solar is a big mess right now,” Marcelo Ortega, an analyst for Rystad, said. “This seems to be the worst time for that to happen.”
This year was supposed to be a year full of American solar growth. Independent energy research firm Rystad has estimated that the U.S. will add another 27 gigawatts of solar energy this year.
Now – between an investigation by the Department of Commerce, border seizures, high prices for solar components and no new legislation in Congress to lubricate the wheels for more renewable energy – Rystad estimates the U.S. could add only about 10 gigawatts in 2022.
Ortega said the setback threatens Biden’s own climate goal of halving the emissions that are warming the planets by 2030. The United States would have to install about 50 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity each year from 2022 to 2030 to keep Biden’s goal on track, according to Ortega’s analysis.
Ross Hopper told CNN that the industry is seeking security from markets and governments, but that it is not getting any of that at the moment.
“There must have been a steady pace of challenges that keep coming to us on these very occasions,” Ross Hopper told CNN.
Commerce is defending the investigation
“My hands are very tied here,” Raimondo said at the hearing. “The statute obliges me to investigate the allegation that companies operating in other countries are trying to circumvent obligations, and under the statute I am obligated to conduct a serious investigation.”
A Commerce official told CNN that the circumvention laws were “completely removed from political considerations.”
“We are committed to holding foreign producers accountable for playing by the rules,” the official told CNN.
Nevertheless, Raimondo has been questioned and criticized by politicians on both sides. A bipartisan group of 19 senators wrote to Biden this week asking for a quick preliminary decision on the investigation.
And at a recent hearing, Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat, pressed Raimonda on her “very serious concerns” about the investigation.
“This will jeopardize tens of thousands of well-paid U.S. solar jobs,” Rosen said. “If we lose these jobs, they won’t come back.”
Democratic Govin Newsom of California and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana also recently wrote to Raimondou expressing concern that the investigation could affect solar growth and jobs in their states.
While solar executives and industry analysts welcome the idea of a domestic solar supply chain, those who spoke to CNN said the Commerce Department’s investigation will not be a catalyst – the industry needs Congress to spur it.
“If what we’re talking about is boosting domestic production, this isn’t the way to do it,” said Ben Catt, CEO of solar company Pine Gate Renewables. “This will have not only a multi-month but also a multi-year impact on the solar industry. We and the administration need to consider how we will double and triple the use of renewable energy in this country. And what we are doing is moving in the opposite direction.”