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The political fight over solar tariffs wages on

New administration, same old problems for solar industry players who want to see the Section 201 tariffs dissolved.

Emma Foehringer Merchant
Emma Foehringer Merchant
4 min read
The political fight over solar tariffs wages on

With President Joe Biden in the White House, many solar boosters hoped the challenges they faced under the Trump administration would dissipate. But for those advocating to remove the previous administration's solar tariffs, those hopes haven't been realized.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has freed up funds for solar research and signed executive actions directing federal agencies to procure carbon-free electricity.

But the administration has also continued to stand behind what may be Trump's most significant renewable energy policy: the tariffs imposed on imported solar cells and modules back in 2018.

In March, the Biden administration defended a Trump-era presidential proclamation that extended the tariffs to include two-sided solar panels and increased the tariff levels in their final year, which runs from February 2021 to February 2022. That choice underscores the complex balance Biden hopes to strike when it comes to clean energy policy: While the administration aspires to deploy enough renewable energy to run the U.S. on entirely carbon-free electricity, Biden also wants to increase the number of U.S. jobs and unionize those workers.

Both political parties have leaned on trade duties in the past as a policy aid for domestic companies. Katherine Tai, the Biden administration’s new U.S. Trade Representative, told The Wall Street Journal in March that the administration was continuing to analyze existing tariffs because they were put in place “to remedy an unbalanced and unfair trade situation.”

An industry rupture

Solar tariffs have divided the industry. While many large solar developers in the United States, along with the industry’s largest trade organization, have advocated for removing the tariffs, companies with domestic manufacturing footprints generally have supported them. And the determination of whether tariffs have harmed or helped the U.S. industry depends on who you ask.

Christine Turner, who worked on trade policy in the Obama White House and is now a senior vice president at consultancy Boundary Stone Partners, points to the Section 201 tariffs as "a demonstrable success."

"Domestic solar manufacturing has expanded with minimal impact on the downstream sector," Turner said in an email.

Daniel Kammen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has advised the U.S. government on energy policy, characterized the overall affect of the tariffs as destructive for U.S. jobs and clean energy in an email to Canary. At the same time, he added, "increasing U.S. manufacturing of renewable energy technologies is hugely important for the jobs component of the energy transition."

Now the industry is confronting how to negotiate the continued dispute, this time under a federal administration that also supports their aims for solar growth.

The latest skirmishes in the solar tariff battle

Last week, the Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry trade group, fired its latest shot in an ongoing legal fight over the tariffs, asking the U.S. Court of International Trade to declare the Trump presidential proclamation “null and void” and refund additional duties collected as a result of the changes the proclamation made to the tariffs.

The Biden administration has backed that Trump-era proclamation, arguing before the court in March that Trump acted “fully within his authority” in crafting it. But it remains unclear what lengths the new administration will go to in order to defend the prior administration’s policy.

Last week also marked the start of a three-month window in which companies can request an extension of the tariffs. So far, no companies have opted to do so. Suniva, one of the original petitioners in favor of the tariffs, did not respond to a request for comment about whether it intends to file an extension request. SolarWorld, Suniva’s co-petitioner, shut down in 2017.

Auxin Solar, Solar Tech Universal, and Mission Solar Energy, all companies that have publicly supported the tariffs, did not respond to requests for comment on potential plans to file an extension request. Hanwha Q Cells, which opened a factory in the U.S. state of Georgia in the wake of tariffs, and LG, which expanded its footprint in Alabama, declined to comment on the matter.

First Solar, the largest solar manufacturer in North America, plans to advocate for longer-term industrial policy that supports U.S. manufacturing during the Biden administration, an employee with knowledge of the company’s trade stance told Canary Media. But First Solar does not want to see Obama- or Trump-era trade duties disappear before such policies are in place, the employee said.

With Biden in the White House, some of the factors motivating the past administration’s solar tariffs persist. Biden, like Trump, hopes to grow U.S. manufacturing jobs, in Biden's case to expand clean energy.

Meanwhile, evidence of human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang province continues piling up, pushing Biden to adopt the same “tough on China” approach that Trump favored. Reports of abuses in Xinjiang, which produces a significant amount of the solar industry’s polysilicon, have prompted U.S. companies to examine supply chains that intersect with the region. The administration is pushing for domestic solar manufacturing growth, while also targeting solar cost declines.

As they currently stand, the Section 201 tariffs will remain in effect for only nine more months. The Trump proclamation opened the door for their extension, but the Biden administration’s plans remain unclear as it continues to review existing tariffs. The administration is expected to file its next motion in the U.S. International Trade Commission case before early June.

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Emma Foehringer Merchant

Emma is a contributing writer at Canary Media. She has covered clean energy and climate change at publications including Greentech Media, Grist and The New Republic.