US trade commission presses ahead in probe of southeast Asian solar manufacturers

The U.S. International Trade Commission on Friday voted to continue with an investigation into potential tariff-dodging by manufacturers of photovoltaic solar cells in southeastern Asia, the latest in a years-long saga that the U.S. solar industry claims could devastate manufacturing.

The body affirmed on Friday that it will continue the probe into the manufacturers, based in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Proponents of the investigation have accused Chinese companies of using those manufacturers to circumvent tariffs on solar panel components.

The Biden administration has set ambitious goals for increasing U.S. production of solar power, but many of the key components for panels are only manufactured overseas. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the main U.S. solar trade group, has argued that penalizing the southeast Asian companies would cut off a vital source of those components and could irreparably obstruct U.S. deployment.

Solar proponents in Congress have echoed these concerns, including Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.). Last August, the Commerce Department said in a preliminary finding that five of the solar companies at issue engaged in tariff-dodging, finding another eight did not. Rosen called the decision “misguided” and said it would “directly affect our nation’s solar economy.”

However, other Democratic lawmakers have backed the investigation, including Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a vulnerable incumbent with a history of support for protectionist economic policies. In a letter Wednesday, Brown joined Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) calling on the International Trade Commission to continue the investigation.

“US solar workers and manufacturers are ready to compete on a level playing field, but leaving China’s cheating unaddressed puts thousands of American solar jobs and the domestic solar industry in jeopardy. Supporting the petitions filed by the Alliance helps hold China accountable and ensure all Americans and our allies benefit from a thriving US solar manufacturing base,” they wrote.

“Careful consideration of all four countries in the petitions is a necessity, as a negative determination in one will lead Chinese-headquartered producers to shift production to that country. We support the Alliance’s AD/CVD petitions to give the US solar industry its chance to shine.”

Other members on the letter include incumbent senators up for re-election red or swing states, including Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Jon Tester (D-Mt.), as well as Georgia Sens. John Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who earlier this year called on President Biden to increase tariffs on Chinese solar components.

Stacy Ettinger, senior vice president of supply chain and trade for SEIA, downplayed the trade commission’s decision to continue with its investigation, saying in a statement to The Hill, “This is a preliminary determination, and we will continue presenting information to the Commission on the issue of injury including the fact that certain U.S. module producers appear to be thriving even with the steady flow of module imports.”

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