Two US solar manufacturers push Biden admin to extend tariffs on solar imports

A petition from Suniva and Auxin could heat up the trade policy fight between domestic solar producers and domestic solar installers.

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Two U.S. solar manufacturers on Monday asked the Biden administration to extend tariffs placed on imported solar cells and modules. The move could further divide the U.S. solar industry on how to manage imports from China, the world’s largest solar equipment supplier. 

In the petition filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission, California-based Auxin Solar and Georgia’s Suniva suggested the tariffs should be extended from their scheduled expiration next year until February 2026, in order to allow U.S. solar producers to expand operations enough to compete with foreign companies.

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The Trump administration established the current tariffs in January 2018, after Suniva and another manufacturer, the now-defunct SolarWorld, petitioned for them. The move pitted parts of the industry against one another. Domestic manufacturers such as Suniva have argued that imports of Chinese solar equipment have harmed U.S. industry and that tariffs could alleviate some pressure. 

This is about national security and realizing the promise of green energy independence,” Auxin CEO Mamun Rashid said in a Monday statement on its petition.

But developers of solar projects, which most often use imported solar modules because of their lower price, have argued that the tariffs harm the industry by making installations more expensive.

It is time to end the job-killing” tariffs, said John Smirnow, general counsel at the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade organization that represents both developers and manufacturers, in an emailed statement on the petition. If we hope to reach our ambitious climate goals, we must accelerate solar deployment, not hinder it with unnecessarily punitive trade measures.”

SEIA prefers methods that lean towards carrot rather than stick, such as a proposal from Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia) that offers a tax credit to domestic solar manufacturing operations. Manufacturers such as Hanwha Q Cells have also lined up in support of that tax credit proposal.

The Biden administration has continued to defend a Trump-era proclamation on the tariffs but hasn’t yet said whether it plans to extend them. Though the administration hopes to dramatically speed renewable installations to help confront climate change, officials also want those materials to create as many jobs in the U.S. as possible, including in manufacturing. 

One line in particular from the petition could win the administration’s attention, in part because it echoes framing the Biden team has used for its own climate policies: For China, addressing climate change means jobs,” the petitioners wrote.

In the years since the Trump administration established the tariffs, numerous solar manufacturers have set up shop or expanded in the United States. But all of those producers focus on complete modules, keeping the U.S. industry reliant on imported solar cells. Both Suniva (which recently emerged from bankruptcy) and Auxin said they are prepared to ramp up cell manufacturing given a tariff extension and favorable domestic manufacturing conditions.

Deficiencies in existing duties have prevented the domestic industry from taking full advantage of the opportunity provided by tariffs, the two companies argue in the petition. The petitioners especially took issue with an exclusion — later revoked — that the Trump administration offered to two-sided solar panels. The petitioners also argue that the majority of the domestic industry agrees with their perspective. Hanwha Q Cells, a manufacturer with a factory in Georgia, told Canary Media it supports the continuation of the tariffs.

The petition kicks off a U.S. International Trade Commission review. President Biden will make the ultimate decision on whether to continue tariffs.

(Lead photo by Science in HD / Unsplash)

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