By MATTHEW DALY Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on Wednesday strongly pushed back against critics, including some within the Biden administration, who say a government investigation into solar energy imports from Southeast Asia is standing in the way of ambitious goals. climate change from President Joe Biden.
Testifying about his department’s budget, Raimondo told a Senate panel that solar research follows a statutory process that does not allow consideration of climate change, supply chains or other factors.
“There is a process, a law” that must be followed, Raimondo said. “I have to implement the law.”
Raimondo called the investigation into imports from four Southeast Asian countries “quasi-judicial” and “apolitical,” noting that it is being run by career staff from the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration.
“We’re going to move as fast as we can,” he told Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii. Schatz was one of several lawmakers who pressured Raimondo over solar research, which he said was serving to “cripple an entire industry.”
The Commerce Department announced in late March that it was investigating a complaint from a small California solar company that solar manufacturers in the four Asian countries (Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia) are using parts from Chinese companies to circumvent the high anti-dumping and countervailing duties imposed on the Chinese. estate.
Hundreds of solar projects in the US have been frozen or substantially delayed in recent weeks as investors seek to protect themselves against potentially steep penalties that could be imposed retroactively. Last week, an Indiana-based utility said delays of up to 18 months on solar projects meant it would have to continue operating two coal-fired power plants that were scheduled for retirement.
“This case is destroying clean energy and needlessly killing American businesses and workers in its wake,” said Abigail Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. She called it “unfathomable” that Biden “would allow the actions of her own administration to be the undoing of her clean energy vision.”
Biden has set a goal of reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, and solar energy is a key part of that agenda. A report last year from the Department of Energy said that solar energy has the potential to supply up to 40% of the nation’s electricity in 15 years, a tenfold increase over current solar output.
More than 300 projects representing 51 gigawatts of solar capacity and 6 gigawatts of battery storage are being canceled or delayed, Hopper said, and layoffs of tens of thousands of solar employees are looming. Some companies report that their entire workforce is at risk, he said.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm also expressed alarm.
“What is at stake is completely stifling the investment, jobs and independence that we would be seeking as a nation to get our fuel from our own generation sources,” he told a Senate hearing last week. “I am certainly deeply concerned that we will be able to achieve the goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035 if this is not resolved quickly.”
A spokeswoman for White House climate envoy John Kerry said he has conveyed the industry’s concerns within the administration, but has been “clear that he defers to Commerce’s discretion in the investigation.”
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said the Commerce Department investigation is “pretty damaging to business in the US.” and urged Raimondo to reject little Auxin Solar’s complaint immediately.
Auxin CEO Mamun Rashid said his employees have been harassed, computer servers have been hacked and strange cars have been driving around his factory.
“Someone called me a couple of days ago and said our name is very toxic in the industry,” he told the Wall Street Journal last week.
“The last thing I want to do is take a step that hurts” the renewable energy industry, he said. “But are we going to look the other way for not complying with American law?”
Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat from Nevada, issued a bipartisan letter urging Commerce to wrap up the investigation quickly.
“This investigation is already causing massive disruption to the solar industry, and will severely harm American solar companies and workers and increase costs for American families as it continues,” the senators wrote. “Without a reliable and cost-effective source of panels, existing and proposed solar projects could grind to a halt.”
The letter was also signed by Moran, Schatz and 19 other senators. The solar industry employs more than 230,000 American workers.
Raimondo responded mostly with sympathy for the senators’ concerns. But he strongly disputed industry claims that potential tariffs in the case could top 200%.
Since 2012, Commerce has imposed more than 150 specific tariffs on solar products from China, with rates averaging between 12% and 20%, it said.
Sanctions above 200% “would normally apply only to companies that are uncooperative and cannot be distinguished from the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party,” Raimondo said.
Such punitive tariffs are “extremely unlikely,” he said.
Hopper was not reassured. He told reporters after the hearing that the sudden halt to the solar projects was “a rational business decision” in response to “irrational” government action. “Why would a reasonable company buy solar panels in such a risky and uncertain business environment?” he asked.
While current US law doesn’t allow officials to consider factors like climate change or supply chain issues, Raimondo suggested Congress could help fix the problem. “If Congress decides to change the law, we will implement it,” he said.
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