Solar Makers Care About Profits Over US Need, Renewable CEO Says

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First Solar photovoltaic panels in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, California.

A major renewable developer blasted a push by some US solar manufacturers for new tariffs on imported photovoltaic cells from Southeast Asia, calling it a bid to protect their own profits at the expense of clean energy deployment.

Michael Polsky, chief executive officer of Invenergy LLC, said petitions seeking new duties on crystalline silicon cells would uniquely benefit First Solar Inc. and Hanwha Qcells USA Inc. while undermining panel-making rivals.

“Clearly, the point of this petition by these petitioners has nothing to do with US manufacturing,” he told Bloomberg in an interview. “It has to do with protecting their profits and creating conditions where they can sell their solar products at the highest price.”

First Solar and Qcells are among the companies seeking duties on cells and panels from several major Asian suppliers, saying the equipment is being unfairly subsidized and priced below the cost of production. They have cast their petition as a way to help US solar manufacturing, as President Joe Biden tries to wrest control of green energy supply chains away from China.

Polsky’s comments came before the Commerce Department’s decision to initiate the probe and the International Trade Commission’s initial public meeting  to consider the issue. The actions Wednesday set the stage for potential antidumping and countervailing duties that could be imposed in as little as four months. The Commerce Department formally initiated the investigation midday Wednesday.

Chicago-based Invenergy is not just a top US renewable power developer but is also now in the panel-making business, having launched production this year at an Ohio factory that relies on imported cells and is a joint venture with China’s LONGi Green Energy Technology Co.

Both First Solar and Qcells rejected the allegation, arguing the trade push is meant to ensure US producers can fairly compete with foreign rivals.

“This petition is exclusively about enforcing the rule of law, enabling a level playing field for domestic solar manufacturing of all PV technologies so that they can compete on the basis of their own merits, and supporting the effort to scale solar value chains across America,” Jason Dymbort, First Solar’s executive vice president and general counsel, said in an emailed statement.

Marta Stoepker, Qcells’ senior director of corporate communications, said the tariff push seeks to encourage US production of polysilicon wafers and cells — not just panels. The US currently has almost no cell production, although Qcells is building an integrated cell and panel plant in Georgia. 

“If we want the many benefits that come from having a strong domestic solar manufacturing industry, including jobs, energy security and a more stable climate, we need more domestic manufacturers to make investments up and down the solar supply chain,” Stoepker said in an emailed statement.

The dispute focuses on crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells, whether sold individually or assembled into the panels — also called modules — that convert sunlight into electricity. First Solar makes specialized thin-film panels that don’t use the polysilicon-based technology that dominates the industry. And Qcells imports some of those components from South Korea, a country outside the potential trade probe, as well as Malaysia, which is one of four targeted nations. The petitions also targets imports from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Polsky said the focus on solar cells creates uncertainty — and the risk of higher input costs — for panel makers in the US. That includes Invenergy’s Illuminate USA plant in Ohio, which uses cells from Malaysia.

The risk of tariffs could encourage US panel makers to seek cell suppliers outside the four targeted nations and drive more developer interest in First Solar and Qcells panels.

Timothy Brightbill, co-chair of Wiley Rein LLP’s international trade practice and lead counsel for the petitioners, defended their approach.

“Solar cells are the key element needed to manufacture solar panels,” he said. “If we brought a case focused only on modules, Chinese-owned companies could easily and would quickly move their module factories before the case is even over, as we have seen them do in the past.”

Incentives under the Inflation Reduction Act are already driving new US solar panel manufacturing. That may in turn increase demand for US-made panel components, including cells, but it will take time, Polsky said. “You can’t build factories overnight,” he said. “So what are you going to do in the meantime?”

(Updates with Commerce Department decision to initiate the investigation from fifth paragraph.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

By Jennifer A Dlouhy


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