America's Chinese solar dilemma - Axios
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America's Chinese solar dilemma

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

America has built a booming solar industry thanks largely to cheap Chinese solar panels, helping to create jobs and cleaner energy. But one part of the sector -- U.S.-based manufacturers -- has been decimated by the overseas competition.

Why it matters: That conflicting dynamic reflects America's open-trade policies that President Trump has said he wants to reverse. It's also at the heart of an effort by two solar manufacturers urging Trump to issue tariffs or other remedies against a flood of cheap imports, a move he's likely to take. The protectionist measures by themselves are unlikely to alter what are decades-long policies pushed by politicians from both parties that have driven manufacturing of all kinds out of the United States.

"You could argue the whole world has benefited from China's over-exuberance in building out manufacturing capacity for photovoltaic solar," said Ethan Zindler, head of Americas for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "On the flip side, the actual manufacturing capacity and the jobs that come with it have accrued disproportionately in China. So while in the U.S. many people want to rebuild a manufacturing economy, that doesn't sit right and I get that."

Driving the news: The International Trade Commission is considering what type of trade remedy to recommend Trump employ to address the cheap imports. The independent federal agency unanimously voted in September that those imports have economically injured two U.S.-based but foreign-owned solar manufacturers. Trump will ultimately decide whether to impose tariffs or another kind of remedy, and most expect he will given his protectionist bent.

How China has helped American solar deployers

China has dominated the crystalline silicon photovoltaic manufacturing industry, the world's most common solar technology, since at least 2010. It has employed the same low-cost labor and technology strategy here as it has with other products ranging from iPhones to DVDs. It has also propped up its solar companies with subsidies.

That model has worked for the U.S. solar industry by three metrics: Cost, deployment and jobs, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association, a U.S. trade group.

  1. The cost to install solar has dropped by more than 70% since 2010.
  2. The U.S. solar market nearly doubled the amount of capacity it added in 2016 compared to the prior year.
  3. Nearly 260,000 Americans work in solar, double the number in 2012.

The solar group opposes the trade remedy request. A spokesman did not address questions by Axios about how China's cheap solar panels affect the U.S. industry.

"SEIA believes that we should maintain and grow the 260,000 jobs we have in this country that are installing and engineering solar," said Jigar Shah, co-founder of Generate Capital, which finances clean-energy technologies including solar. "Getting affordable solar panels from China is the way we do that."

How China has hurt American solar makers

In a report issued as part of its proceedings, the ITC found that nearly 30 U.S.-based manufacturers of photovoltaic solar panels have gone out of business since 2012.

One of the companies asking for trade protections, Suniva, filed for bankruptcy protection in April. This Georgia-based company is, ironically, majority owned by a Chinese company, but it was nonetheless trying to manufacture in the United States. The other firm is SolarWorld Americas, an Oregon-based but German-owned company that has won two narrower trade protections against cheap Chinese panels.

"For a while, these trade cases stabilized the market, but Chinese-owned companies simply built even more capacity in other countries around the world, primarily in Asia," said Tim Brightbill, trade counsel for SolarWorld Americas.

Last week the CEO of one of the largest U.S.-based solar manufacturers, First Solar, broke its silence in the case, and sided with the pair of companies. First Solar makes a different kind of panel that wouldn't be affected by the remedies and could stand to benefit.

"The Commission should reject the notion that the US CSPV industry must be left to die so that the downstream solar industry may live," First Solar CEO Mark Widmar wrote to the ITC.

Suniva and SolarWorld are asking the U.S. government for a mix of trade remedies against photovoltaic panel imports. These include tariffs, quotas and price floors. Any action would be temporary based on the 1974 law that sets the remedies.

"Will this one set of remedies over the next four years change the entire American solar manufacturing industry forever?" said Matt Card, executive vice president of Suniva's commercial operations. He was implying that the answer was no — but he suggested that these remedies should be the starting point to a longer process. "It's one battle at a time," Card said.

The remedies would "have some price effects," Card said, adding that they would have a minimal short-term effect on demand over the next few years because it would entice manufacturing to the United States.

Others say that could happen.

"We have heard from some manufacturers that they are quietly considering moving some capacity onto U.S. soil and these are Asian companies," Zindler said. But even if that happens, he said, "it's not going to create an enormous number of jobs because of the automated nature of manufacturing."

Making it work

California-based but foreign-owned SunPower is an example of how a manufacturer has made America's current policy and economic system work -- by making its panels abroad, including in Malaysia and the Philippines.

These regions are known for making low-cost manufactured goods at scale, said CEO Tom Werner. He said the United States is best for its higher-paid white collar jobs, which represent about 15% of its more than 7,000 employees.

Werner is bullish on solar power, but he added: "It's just not making solar cells in America."


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Rohingya women say they’ve been raped by Myanmar military

Portraits of some of the Rohingya Muslim women taken during an interview with The Associated Press.

The use of rape by Myanmar's armed forces has been sweeping and methodical, AP found in interviews with 29 Rohingya Muslim women and girls now in Bangladesh.

Why it matters: "The testimonies bolster the U.N.'s contention that Myanmar's armed forces are systematically employing rape as a 'calculated tool of terror' aimed at exterminating the Rohingya people."

More from AP's Kristen Gelineau:

  • "They were interviewed separately, come from a variety of villages in Myanmar and now live spread across several refugee camps in Bangladesh. Yet their stories were hauntingly similar. The military has denied its soldiers raped any Rohingya women."
  • "Here are the accounts as told by 21 women and girls [ranging in age from 13 to 35]. They agreed to be identified in this story by their first initial only, out of fear the military will kill them or their families."

Polluters are getting off easier under Trump's EPA

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks to the media during a June briefing. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

"An analysis of [EPA] enforcement data by The New York Times shows that the administration has adopted a more lenient approach than the previous two administrations — Democratic and Republican — toward polluters," Eric Lipton and Danielle Ivory write on the front page:

  • "The Times built a database of civil cases filed at the E.P.A. during the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. During the first nine months under [Administrator Scott] Pruitt's leadership, the E.P.A. started about 1,900 cases, about one-third fewer than the number under President Barack Obama's first E.P.A. director and about one-quarter fewer than under President George W. Bush's over the same time period."
  • "[T]he agency sought civil penalties of about $50.4 million from polluters for cases initiated under Mr. Trump. Adjusted for inflation, that is about 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought and about 70 percent of what the Bush administration sought over the same time period."
  • Get smart: "The E.P.A. ... can force companies to retrofit their factories to cut pollution. Under Mr. Trump, those demands have dropped sharply. The agency has demanded about $1.2 billion worth of ... injunctive relief ... in cases initiated during the nine-month period, which, adjusted for inflation, is about 12 percent of what was sought under Mr. Obama and 48 percent under Mr. Bush."

North Korean threat intensifies as it grows its bioweapons program

People watch a TV screen showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: Ahn Young-joon / AP

"North Korea is moving steadily to acquire the essential machinery that could potentially be used for an advanced bioweapons program," the WashPost's Joby Warrick reports atop column 1.

Why it matters: "The gains have alarmed U.S. analysts, who say North Korea — which has doggedly pursued weapons of mass destruction of every other variety — could quickly surge into industrial-scale production of biological pathogens if it chooses to do so."

Details of prorgram expansion:

  • "Kim Jong Un's government also is dispatching its scientists abroad to seek advanced degrees in microbiology, while offering to sell biotechnology services to the developing world."
  • The takeaway: "Such a move could give the regime yet another fearsome weapon with which to threaten neighbors or U.S. troops in a future conflict."

Report: Mueller focusing on obstruction of justice around Flynn

Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn leaves federal court in Washington. Photo: Susan Walsh / AP

Robert Mueller and his team are focusing on the days after White House officials were told Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, NBC News' Carol Lee and Julia Ainsley report, citing "two people familiar with Mueller's investigation".

Why it matters: This means Mueller's team could be working to determine if Trump obstructed justice and is likely seeking out what President Trump knew about Flynn's conversations with former Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, and subsequently, when Trump learned Flynn lied about them.

That period: January 26 to February 13, 2017.

The focus reportedly includes interviews with White House Counsel Don McGahn, who briefed Trump and senior White House staff about Yates' report that Flynn had lied to White House officials on January 26 and that he was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, according to Sean Spicer. That included Flynn's lie to Vice President Pence, which is what Trump cited in his firing statements.

  • Yates testified before Congress that McGahn asked about Flynn's FBI interview but that she refused to answer questions about that.
  • McGahn briefed Trump and senior White House staff about Yates' report that Flynn had lied to White House officials on January 26, according to Sean Spicer including Vice President Pence, and that he was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
  • The effort reportedly includes interviews with other White House officials as well.

Saudi Arabia set to lift ban on movie theaters

Visitors enter the Saudi Comic Con in February 2017. Photo: AP

Saudi Arabia will allow movie theaters to open in the country next year for the first time since the 1980s, per the AP. The government hopes to open 300 theaters with 2,000 screens by 2030, paving the way for a new industry — though it’s unclear what movies might play and edited they might be.

Why it matters: It’s part of a continuing social modernizing push to attract international investment by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has announced an end to a ban on women driving and allowed rock concerts to be held in Saudi Arabia. That’s happening in conjunction with his controversial corruption crackdown, which is set to seize hundreds of billions from prominent businessmen for ailing Saudi coffers.


How Ajit Pai tore up the rulebook for the information age

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has rewritten the rules of the information age so thoroughly that there's no mode of communication under his control where the rules aren't looser than they were a year ago. Here's a look at what he's done.

Be smart: While some of his deregulation has been bipartisan, his big-ticket proposals have divided the agency and the nation. He's actively courted fans of President Trump's populist rhetoric and inspired scorn on the left.

Why it matters: Many top Republican priorities have been mired in Washington gridlock since Trump took office. Not so at the FCC. Pai swiftly orchestrated the wholesale deregulation of the networks Americans use every day, which will likely alter the way people experience the internet, broadcast TV and even AM radio. Those changes will play out over years — not immediately.

Ascension and Providence consider mega hospital merger

Ascension CEO Anthony Tersigni is eyeing a large health system merger. Photo: Aijaz Rahi / AP

Ascension and Providence St. Joseph Health are in discussions to merge, which would create the largest hospital system in the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reports citing people familiar with the merger talks. The combined system would have 191 hospitals, numerous clinics and roughly $45 billion in annual revenue.

Why it matters: Although the Ascension-Providence deal is not guaranteed, it shows how health care has turned into the Wild West for mega-mergers. CVS Health is buying Aetna, Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health are merging, and Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care are combining, among other deals. Yet, research shows mergers don't lower health care costs or improve care for patients.


Sneak Peek: Pence to the pyramids

Pence listens as Trump announces his Jerusalem move. Photo: Alex Brandon / AP

With President Trump's announcement on Jerusalem lighting up the Middle East, Vice President Mike Pence embarks Saturday on his first trip to Israel since taking national office.

The vice president will be gone for a week, with stops in Egypt and Germany:

  • Pence takes off from Washington, lands in Tel Aviv and goes straight to Jerusalem for a bilateral meeting with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • Pence then will light a menorah at the Western Wall.
  • An aide said that Pence's message in Israel will be that Trump, as he said in his speech recognizing Jerusalem as the capital, is committed to working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
  • Pence will use his meetings with leaders in the region to reaffirm the administration's commitment to work with partners throughout the Middle East and to "defeat radicalism."
  • On Monday, Pence will give the signature speech at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. The speech will be aimed at the region overall. Pence will emphasize that he is there on behalf of the president, and detail why Israel is a most cherished ally of the United States.
  • Pence will then fly to Cairo for a bilat with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The two will discuss security and joint efforts to fight ISIS.
  • Pence will visit the pyramids and will talk with media with the ancient wonders as a backdrop.
  • Pence will fly home through Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and will do a meet-and-greet with troops.

The takeaway: A key theme for Pence's remarks and interviews will be U.S. efforts to stop persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the region.

Go deeper: Palestinians won't meet with Pence.


Exclusive: Policy official leaving White House

The White House South Portico is adorned with Christmas lights. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Paul Winfree is leaving the White House, according to a senior administration official with knowledge of the decision. Winfree, who declined to comment, has resigned from his position as Deputy Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and Director of Budget Policy.

  • Why this matters: Winfree's departure is part of what we've been forecasting will be a wave of White House staff departures after year one of the Trump presidency. His last day in the White House will be Friday.

Winfree, a respected policy wonk with strong ties to the conservative movement, is the second senior official to announce a departure in three days. Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell told colleagues she's leaving to return to her family in New York.

What Winfree has been telling friends and colleagues:

  • He and his wife are expecting a second baby boy in a few weeks.
  • He'll return to the Heritage Foundation, where he will run economic policy.
  • He also plans to start his own policy consulting business. -
  • Starting in February, he will teach a seminar on policymaking at a top university, where he will draw on his experiences working in the White House, the U.S. Senate, and with think tanks.