The Commerce Department’s ill-timed solar investigation is hurting utilities

The chaos resulting from a Commerce Department probe has prompted two Indiana coal plants to stay open two years longer than anticipated.

Solar panels

While the administration wants to speed the adoption of renewable power, that's being hamstrung by the Commerce Department investigation.

Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

The Commerce Department’s chickens are coming home to roost.

On Wednesday, Indiana utility NiSource announced it will delay two scheduled 2023 coal plant retirements until 2025 because of “uncertainty” in the solar panel market that has knocked multiple solar projects off schedule by six to 18 months. The root cause? A Commerce Department investigation into Southeast Asian solar panel manufacturers that has imperiled the industry, including the very solar projects that were on track to replace the Midwestern utility’s coal operations.

The rest of NiSource’s coal units, including the Michigan City Generating Station, remain on track for retirement by 2028, the company told investors in its quarterly earnings call. The utility also said despite the solar setback, it’s still on track to achieve its goals of reducing Scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions 90% by 2030, and reducing methane emissions from its gas operations 50% by 2025.

The delay will also push back NiSource’s anticipated cost savings for customers from the pivot to cheaper sources of power generation, according to SVP and Chief Strategy and Risk Officer Shawn Anderson.

NiSource has historically been one of the most ambitious utilities in terms of transitioning from coal to renewables, and has stood out among its more-reluctant-to-decarbonize Midwestern peers. A 2020 Energy and Policy Institute analysis found that it is the country’s only large, investor-owned utility that is decarbonizing speedily enough to meet President Joe Biden’s target of a carbon-free power sector by 2035.

But while the Biden administration has been vocal about its desire to speed the adoption of renewable power in the U.S., that goal is being hamstrung by the Commerce Department investigation.

The intrigue began in February when the tiny and struggling California-based Auxin Solar asked the agency to investigate solar companies operating out of Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, which currently supply roughly 80% of the panels in the U.S. Auxin alleged that Chinese companies were dodging U.S. tariffs (which have existed for over a decade) by building panels in Southeast Asia using Chinese materials and Chinese intellectual property, and sought “fair pricing.” The department took up the request in late March, and the resulting investigation is expected to last roughly a year.

Chaos has since ensued. Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in March that “this misstep will have a devastating impact on the U.S. solar market at a time when solar prices are climbing, and project delays and cancellations are adding up … Taking up this case will have a chilling effect on the solar industry.”

While no further duties would be imposed until the investigation wraps up, the uncertainty of what could result has effectively halted solar panel imports. And Auxin has since been on the receiving end of much of the solar industry’s ire. In response, Auxin CEO Mamun Rashid told E&E News that the industry is engaging in “fearmongering,” and new tariffs “would be good for America.” NiSource’s announcement shows, though, that the concerns have been well-founded.

Throwing an additional wrench in the situation is the fact that the Commerce Department initiated a major climate push mere weeks ago. Secretary Gina Raimondo directed the department to integrate climate considerations into its policies, strategic planning and programs as a part of the Biden administration’s “whole-of-government climate efforts.”

“Addressing the climate crisis has been a top priority for the Biden-Harris Administration, and at the Department of Commerce we have been working tirelessly to use every tool at our disposal to help address this crisis and related economic impacts,” Raimondo said in a press release at the time.

However, the department’s investigative body is entirely separate from political considerations, hence the less-than-ideal timing. A Commerce Department spokesperson told Protocol that “supporting U.S. workers and businesses to compete and win globally” is at the core of the agency’s mission.

“Even as we invest in the U.S. solar manufacturing industry, imported solar cells and panels remain important to advancing current efforts — and Commerce is committed to holding foreign producers accountable to playing by the same rules as U.S. producers,” the spokesperson added.

But Mattea Mrkusic, policy lead for the climate advocacy organization Evergreen Action, told Protocol that the case is still in direct conflict with the department’s commitments.

“U.S. solar deployment will need to triple — or even quadruple — by 2030, according to the Department of Energy, if we are to avert catastrophic climate change,” she said. “Resolving this case is no doubt the biggest impact the Commerce Department could have on climate change mitigation.”

LA is a growing tech hub. But not everyone may fit.

LA has a housing crisis similar to Silicon Valley’s. And single-family-zoning laws are mostly to blame.

As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers, whose high salaries put them at an advantage in both LA's renting and buying markets.

Photo: Nat Rubio-Licht/Protocol

LA’s tech scene is on the rise. The number of unicorn companies in Los Angeles is growing, and the city has become the third-largest startup ecosystem nationally behind the Bay Area and New York with more than 4,000 VC-backed startups in industries ranging from aerospace to creators. As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers. The city is quickly becoming more and more like Silicon Valley — a new startup and a dozen tech workers on every corner and companies like Google, Netflix, and Twitter setting up offices there.

But with growth comes growing pains. Los Angeles, especially the burgeoning Silicon Beach area — which includes Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey — shares something in common with its namesake Silicon Valley: a severe lack of housing.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

While there remains debate among economists about whether we are officially in a full-blown recession, the signs are certainly there. Like most executives right now, the outlook concerns me.

In any case, businesses aren’t waiting for the official pronouncement. They’re already bracing for impact as U.S. inflation and interest rates soar. Inflation peaked at 9.1% in June 2022 — the highest increase since November 1981 — and the Federal Reserve is targeting an interest rate of 3% by the end of this year.

Keep Reading Show less
Nancy Sansom

Nancy Sansom is the Chief Marketing Officer for Versapay, the leader in Collaborative AR. In this role, she leads marketing, demand generation, product marketing, partner marketing, events, brand, content marketing and communications. She has more than 20 years of experience running successful product and marketing organizations in high-growth software companies focused on HCM and financial technology. Prior to joining Versapay, Nancy served on the senior leadership teams at PlanSource, Benefitfocus and PeopleMatter.


SFPD can now surveil a private camera network funded by Ripple chair

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ripple chairman and co-founder Chris Larsen has been funding a network of security cameras throughout San Francisco for a decade. Now, the city has given its police department the green light to monitor the feeds from those cameras — and any other private surveillance devices in the city — in real time, whether or not a crime has been committed.

This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.


These two AWS vets think they can finally solve enterprise blockchain

Vendia, founded by Tim Wagner and Shruthi Rao, wants to help companies build real-time, decentralized data applications. Its product allows enterprises to more easily share code and data across clouds, regions, companies, accounts, and technology stacks.

“We have this thesis here: Cloud was always the missing ingredient in blockchain, and Vendia added it in,” Wagner (right) told Protocol of his and Shruthi Rao's company.

Photo: Vendia

The promise of an enterprise blockchain was not lost on CIOs — the idea that a database or an API could keep corporate data consistent with their business partners, be it their upstream supply chains, downstream logistics, or financial partners.

But while it was one of the most anticipated and hyped technologies in recent memory, blockchain also has been one of the most failed technologies in terms of enterprise pilots and implementations, according to Vendia CEO Tim Wagner.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.


Kraken's CEO got tired of being in finance

Jesse Powell tells Protocol the bureaucratic obligations of running a financial services business contributed to his decision to step back from his role as CEO of one of the world’s largest crypto exchanges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kraken is going through a major leadership change after what has been a tough year for the crypto powerhouse, and for departing CEO Jesse Powell.

The crypto market is still struggling to recover from a major crash, although Kraken appears to have navigated the crisis better than other rivals. Despite his exchange’s apparent success, Powell found himself in the hot seat over allegations published in The New York Times that he made insensitive comments on gender and race that sparked heated conversations within the company.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Latest Stories