In Episode 4 of the Factor This! podcast, Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association trade group, shares how the solar industry swayed President Joe Biden to pause new tariffs on module imports from Southeast Asia, while also boosting domestic manufacturing.
And later in the episode, Intersect Power CEO Sheldon Kimber discusses the early days of Recurrent Energy, tariffs, and solar’s path forward.
The fourth and final episode of the Factor This! Auxin Solar tariff petition series is available June 20 wherever you get your podcasts.
Abigail Ross Hopper was in unfamiliar territory.
As CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry’s leading trade group, she didn’t expect to be lining up against an administration with arguably the most ambitious clean energy and climate goals in U.S. history.
But the Department of Commerce’s decision to open an investigation based on the Auxin Solar petition, and whether modules imported from Southeast Asia are skirting duties against China, presented what was seen as an immediate, existential threat to SEIA’s member companies.
In March, more than two months before President Biden moved to extend a lifeline to the solar industry with a two-year pause on new tariffs and an Executive Order aimed at boosting domestic manufacturing, Renewable Energy World noted the industry’s decision to take public its trade spat with the White House.
Hopper said the choice to publicly pressure the Biden administration was an “intentional and thoughtful shift” that was made by SEIA and the American Clean Power Association, two trade organizations that normally compete for membership but aligned to mount a $5 million campaign against the tariff investigation.
“I do not have this job to protect an administration. I have this job to advocate on behalf of the solar and storage industries in the United States,” Hopper told the Factor This! podcast. “Whoever gets in the way, or whoever is hurting my companies, is going to hear from me.”
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, climate envoy John Kerry, and White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy all pushed Biden to intervene in the trade case, according to news reports.
But Hopper said she believes it was the stories from American solar companies that ultimately swayed the president.
“The conversation that we were having to have with elected officials and policymakers was… we have a crisis on our hands today, not a potential crisis in six months or a year,” Hopper said.
What’s next? How to build a domestic solar supply chain
There’s little time for a victory lap. Hopper knows that.
With the clock ticking on the two-year pause on new tariffs, the solar industry now must effectively push for federal incentives for domestic manufacturing and updates to U.S. trade policy.
SEIA is a backer of the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act, a bill that would provide incentives for domestic manufacturing at every stage of the solar supply chain. The bill passed in the House last year but has yet to receive a vote in the Senate.
Congress also must find funds to support Biden’s initiation of the Defense Production Act.
SEIA also is actively engaged in negotiations around the America COMPETES Act, which would give the Department of Commerce more discretion over whether to take up a trade case.
“It doesn’t feel overwhelming to me,” Hopper said of the policy fights ahead and the short timeline, “but it definitely feels like there are a lot of moving parts.”
“What a nice problem to have, you know? We sit at this incredibly opportunistic moment in history.”
Solar’s path forward
Changing solar’s status quo — and the seemingly endless cycle of import tariffs — is crucial to the industry’s evolution, according to Intersect Power CEO Sheldon Kimber.
In 2007, Kimber helped start Recurrent Energy, which placed one of the first large orders for Chinese solar modules in the U.S.
Recurrent used Chinese-sourced panels to develop the 5 MW Sunset Reservoir solar project for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission— at the time, a massive utility-scale project. The project reached commercial operation in 2010, just as the U.S. was shifting from a net exporter of solar modules to a net importer.
The first tariffs would soon follow.
Solar tariff timeline
2012: Obama administration implements anti-dumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) rules based on Chinese solar manufacturers, linking the AD/CVD to the origin of the cells, not the module. Cells were offshored out of China, primarily to Thailand, while modules were still produced in China with components subsidized by the Chinese government.
2015: Obama administration adds follow-up AD/CVD against China and AD against Taiwan to address the cell/module workaround. AD/CVD is attached to the solar module’s origin, regardless of where the cell is produced.
2018: Trump administration establishes Section 201 safeguard and quota. Tariff rate is implemented on all solar module imports, regardless of origin, with a duty-free importation of 2.5 GW of cells for domestic module manufacturing.
2022: Biden administration extends Trump-era Section 201 safeguards for another four years, but expands the cell import quota to 5 GW and exempts bifacial solar modules.
Kimber said he believes the first round of anti-dumping and countervailing duties levied against Chinese manufacturers in 2012 were justified: China had flooded the market with cheap modules. And while there was initial pain across the U.S. solar sector, the disruption wasn’t as significant as the industry expected, he said.
But the pattern that took shape–with follow-on tariffs from the Obama administration in 2015 and the Section 201 safeguard by the Trump administration in 2018–did little to support domestic manufacturing.
“We think someone’s trying to encourage us to do something other than what we’re doing, but it’d be really good if they would show us what it was in a more positive way,” Kimber said.
As one of Arizona-based First Solar’s largest customers, Intersect Power was insulated to a large degree from the Auxin Solar tariff petition. The company has procured 4 GW of panels from the U.S. manufacturer over the last four years.
There are only so many domestically manufactured modules to go around, though: Less than 10 GW per year. And, for the sake of the broader solar industry and meeting urgent climate goals, Kimber said the industry’s entire approach to these trade disputes needs to change.
Kimber conceded that the solar industry bears some of the blame for the current situation. But, he said, policymakers are more at fault for not creating a plan that pulls together the goals of manufacturers, developers, and customers.
“We need to sit down and say ‘truce,’” Kimber said. “Let’s make a three- or four-year plan.”
He said that “instead of letting gravity take its course” the industry should have sat down years ago to address the issue of low-cost imports that came at the expense of domestic manufacturing.
Kimber’s passion for domestic manufacturing comes from his upbringing.
Born in South Africa, he moved to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Ohio. There, he watched as friends and family were left behind as Rust Belt manufacturing left for lower-cost options in other countries.
“You have to acknowledge that economics and markets do express the opinions and values of those who participate in them. It is pure abdication on the part of people who move money and goods around the world to say, ‘Let the markets decide!’” Kimber said.
“Have an opinion. I have an opinion. I work in markets. My opinion is we should make more stuff in the United States.”
Kimber, through Intersect Power, said he believes he can lead by buying American-made products. And policymakers can extend that opportunity to the rest of the industry today, he said, by passing meaningful incentives.
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