Feb 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Bipartisan senators to rebuke Biden on solar tariffs

Wind turbines and solar panels populate the screen diagonally.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) are introducing a bill to repeal President Biden's solar panel import rules and create a Department of Energy program to enhance domestic production and manufacturing of solar panels and other components.

Why it matters: The legislation is a rebuke to the Biden administration, and represents a bipartisan effort to prioritize the U.S. solar industry.

Between the lines: It underscores the challenge in balancing between prioritizing domestic manufacturing and green jobs versus the need to import crucial materials in the short term to achieve 100% clean power.

  • The Biden administration tried to strike a balance between the competing priorities when it extended — but modified — the Section 201 tariffs on imported solar cells and panels that President Trump imposed.
  • Biden allowed an exemption for bifacial solar panels that can capture sunlight on both sides, and increased the limit on imports of solar cells from 2.5 to 5 gigawatts.
  • The extension came to the dismay of some senators and domestic solar energy developers who rely on cheap panels imported from China and other countries.

What they're saying: "The tariffs are just a hindrance," Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) general counsel John Smirnow told Axios.

  • "They're holding the industry back. If you do a cost-benefit analysis, and you weigh the cost of the tariffs — literally billions of dollars, several gigawatts of lost deployment, 10s of 1000s of missed job opportunities — versus 500 manufacturing jobs and a net loss of manufacturing jobs, it just doesn't seem to be good policy."

"Joe Biden ran for president on a promise to restore the backbone of this country, the middle class," a senior administration official told Axios. "His North Star will always be a simple question: what is best for American workers and American industry."

  • "That’s why the President agreed with the determination of the U.S. International Trade Commission and decided to extend the Section 201 Safeguards for four more years to prevent or remedy serious injury to the U.S. solar manufacturing sector.
  • "This decision is a significant step forward in the President’s comprehensive effort to rebuild a strong North American solar supply chain that will help create good jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign suppliers, and meet the President’s ambitious clean energy and climate goals."

The bill also directs the Department of Energy to invest in research and development for parts of the supply chain that the U.S. doesn't have, including wafer ingot manufacturing capacity and solar cell manufacturing capacity in the U.S.

  • It would also support educational and skills training for a robust talent pipeline for solar manufacturing.
  • Last month, a group of a dozen bipartisan senators urged Biden not to extend the tariffs, which were set to expire towards the beginning of this month.

The other side: Domestic solar manufacturers — which make up 14% of employment in the industry — sought an extension of the tariffs, arguing that their products were still unable to compete with products made overseas that dominate the U.S. market

The big picture: Biden has set a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and solar power is a key part of that agenda.

  • But current domestic production of solar panels only meets 15% of the U.S. solar demand, according to SEIA, meaning the solar industry heavily relies on imports, primarily from China, to compete with fossil fuels.
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