Bulletins

Biden gives Southeast Asia’s solar industry tariff immunity

The Commerce Department is investigating Southeast Asian solar suppliers over alleged ties to China. The White House wants to block new tariffs, regardless of the investigation.

Rows of rooftop solar panels.

The White House blocked any potential tariffs resulting from the Commerce Department probe into Southeast Asia's solar industry.

Photo: Angie Warren via Unsplash

President Biden invoked his emergency authority on Monday to give Southeast Asian solar suppliers a two-year reprieve from any new tariffs. Southeast Asian nations including Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam produced around 75% of imported solar modules in 2020, according to the White House statement.


In March, the Commerce Department began investigating Southeast Asian solar suppliers over alleged ties to China. Auxin Solar, a California-based solar supplier, requested the investigation because it claimed Chinese companies were circumventing U.S. tariffs by assembling solar panels in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Auxin handed the Commerce Department reports that found 70% of that solar equipment value ultimately flowed back to China, where critical pre-assembly steps and R&D took place.

The Solar Energy Industries Association warned of dire consequences from the investigation, alleging that the Commerce Department would consider tariffs of up to 250%. In March, SEIA President Abigail Ross Hopper said the investigation would have “a chilling effect on the solar industry.”

As the investigation plodded along, securing solar imports became a higher political priority. In May, a group of 85 House Democrats sent a letter to the White House expressing “grave concern” about the investigation, which they said had already devastated the domestic solar industry. The group cited a survey in which 83% of solar companies reported delays or cancellations from crystalline silicon photovoltaic (CSPV) cell suppliers. The White House provided more recent data that suggests around half of domestic solar deployments are in jeopardy due to the supply crunch.

In the executive order, Biden said the two-year tariff exemption would give the domestic solar industry time to ramp up output capacity while the U.S. continued to pursue its overall solar capacity goals. Half of new domestic electric capacity in 2022 and 2023 was expected to come from solar capacity and batteries, but those forecasts look shaky given the ongoing supply crunch.

China heavily subsidizes its own solar industry. Policies such as feed-in tariffs for solar projects — which guarantee above-market electricity rates — have allowed China to grow solar production capacity well beyond that of any other country.

If Auxin’s allegations are true, then U.S.-based solar manufacturers still face an uphill battle to boost domestic supply since their competitors would likely be more heavily subsidized. The White House seeks to counter such concerns with its own subsidy pledge: The emergency order outlined plans to boost domestic production capacity through targeted federal procurement programs and the deployment of the Defense Production Act.

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