The US solar industry is in an uproar over a group of petitions before the Department of Commerce, which seek to impose heavy new tariffs on imported solar panels and solar cells. The writers of the petitions have chosen to remain anonymous and now the guessing game is on. So, who is behind those solar tariff petitions?
What’s The Big Deal About Solar Panel Tariffs?
If you’re new to the topic of solar panel tariffs, all you need to know is one thing: the number of actual soup-to-nuts solar manufacturers in the US is vanishingly small. Almost all of the domestic manufacturing in the US is done with imported panels and cells, among other parts. That means tariffs can make or break key players and put a damper on the entire domestic industry.
It’s not quite that simple, because other elements can come into play. The Trump administration put a crimp in the industry when it imposed new solar tariffs in January 2018, but technology improvements, new solar financing instruments, and the use of solar panels not covered by the tariffs helped keep the industry up and running.
Supply chain security is another complicating factor. As with the Obama administration, the Biden administration is trying to ramp up domestic supplies of key parts and materials. That’s going to take time. As things stand now, the US is going to have to continue relying on imports to accelerate solar installation in accord with the President’s ambitious climate action plan.
So, Who’s Really Behind The New Solar Panel Tariffs?
Into this picture steps a group of anonymous companies petitioning the Department of Commerce to impose new tariffs of 50% to 250% on imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic panels and cells from Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, according to an angry letter fired off by the Solar Industries Association of America earlier this week. The letter was signed by 190 or so US solar stakeholders.
In the letter, SEIA demanded to know who was behind the petitions. If you know how to look up petitions at the Department of Commerce, have at it. We searched under “crystalline silicon photovoltaic” and came up with four recent and not-so-anonymous requests for relief.
The first occurred in 2017 during the Trump administration and was filed on behalf of Suniva. The next one popped up in 2019, on behalf of “United States Trade Representative.”
Then it was radio silence until last month, when two petitions popped up. One was filed on behalf of Suniva and Auxin Solar, and the other was filed on behalf of Hanwha Q Cells USA, LG Electronics USA, and Mission Solar Energy.
If you’re having an a-ha moment, you might have to guess again. Auxin, Suniva, Hanwha, and LG were not among the 190 solar companies that signed on to the SEIA letter, but Mission Solar does appear on the list.
So, either Mission is playing both sides against the middle, or it has one hand that doesn’t know what the other is doing, or there are two different companies called Mission Solar. Or something else is going on.
Either way, neither of the August petitions are the ones upon which SEIA is aiming its wrath. According to news reports last month, several petitions were that were filed in August have yet to be published by the Commerce Department.
Who Really Supports Solar Panel Tariffs?
One might look for a hint among the solar companies that publicly supported the Trump administration on solar panel tariffs. One was Suniva, which later filed for bankruptcy. In 2019 our friends over at Quartz reported that Suniva later-later successfully reorganized through the New York firm Lion Point Capital.
Quartz also noted that the German company SolarWorld Industries’ wholly owned subsidiary SolarWorld Americas supported the Trump tariffs before it, too, filed for bankruptcy. Its assets were purchased by SunPower in 2018.
SolarWorld Americas did surface again in 2020, when the D.C. law firm Wiley represented it in a tariff case against the Chinese company Sunpreme in California (more on that in a sec).
What Is The American Solar Manufacturers Against Chinese Circumvention?
As for the identities of the anonymous petitions, the answer still lies somewhere deep within the halls of Wiley, which is also representing those filers. In a press release dated August 16, Wiley cites the organization American Solar Manufacturers Against Chinese Circumvention as the entity behind the anonymous petitions.
By circumvention, they allege that Chinese companies have off-shored much of their solar business to Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, while continuing to hold a firm grip on subsidized manufacturing and R&D at home. The Wiley press release names many names including affiliates of Jinko Solar in Malaysia, Canadian Solar Manufacturing in Thailand, and Trina Solar in Vietnam.
Wiley’s August press release was widely reported, but nobody seems to have found a website or any other background information about an organization named the American Solar Manufacturers Against Chinese Circumvention, other than there are reportedly several solar companies in the group.
That thing about anonymity brings up another case of interest involving Wiley and privacy. Last March, the firm issued a press release that describes two amicus briefs it filed in support of organizations challenging a California law that requires all charities operating within the state to disclose their major donors to the California Attorney General.
One was filed in support of the Thomas More Law Center and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. The other was filed jointly with the American Legislative Exchange Council.
If ALEC rings a bell, it should. Among other issues, the organization has been linked to obstruction on climate action, leading climate activists and other stakeholders to try and shed light on its donors.
Wily’s amicus brief with ALEC goes beyond First Amendment issues to describe why anonymity is so important to charitable organizations like ALEC.
“…ALEC’s brief highlights an organized campaign to defame, harass, and boycott ALEC members as well as members of other organizations over several decades using compulsory disclosure as a tool,” Wiley explains in its press release.
“The brief details how public officials allied with private activists tried to obtain rosters of ALEC’s ‘members and private contributors’ for the purpose of using that information ‘to ruin ALEC and eliminate its ideas from the public square,'” Wiley adds.
Do tell! Let’s go back to those anonymous circumvention petitions that Wiley filed in August. PV Magazine’s reporting included an interview with Wiley partner Timothy Brightbill, who explained the reasoning behind the anonymity:
“[Brightbill] declined to name members of the antidumping organization, saying that ‘Given the Chinese control of the entire solar supply chain, retaliation is likely if their identities are revealed.’ In such situations, the companies who make up the coalition ‘are allowed under U.S. law to remain confidential,’ he said.”
That seems to settle that. Wiley and Brightbill also represented SolarWorld Americas in that 2020 legal action, so it seems that anonymity cuts a fine cloth in matters such as these.
The Commerce Department has until September 30 to answer the anonymous petitions, so stay tuned for more on that.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.