Tariff investigation causes disruption for Vermont solar companies

The solar panel at Crossest Brook Middle School in Duxbury on Wednesday August 25, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Thomas Hand, co-founder of Manchester-based MHG Solar, is struggling to find panels to carry out a solar project that would power most municipal buildings in Fair Haven.

Disruptions to the solar supply chain have created enormous challenges that are now hampering the completion of the 500 kilowatt project, which is over two and a half years in duration.

The hand is not alone: ​​due to a new investigation by the US Department of Commerce, many solar panels have evaporated from the market. As a result, representatives from solar companies across the state said their projects have stalled.

Industry leaders say the impact of the potential new tariff could affect jobs related to Vermont’s solar industry and across the country hamper progress toward meeting climate and environmental goals. ‘renewable energy.

The investigation “probably impacts everyone” in Vermont’s solar industry, said Jim Merriam, CEO of White River Junction-based Norwich Solar.

In late March, the Biden administration announced a new investigation into whether China is avoiding tariffs on solar panels by routing some of its business through Southeast Asian manufacturers, who then sell to the United States.

Merriam has worked with companies in Southeast Asia that are currently under investigation, and one company has threatened to cancel an order, he said.

Norwich Solar is building projects in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine and employs about 35 people and “dozens and dozens of contractors and their employees,” he said.

“When you have an injection of variability on the panel that’s going to be used, it ripples through the whole design and just adds risk everywhere, because the project is so manufacturer-centric and model or panel-centric that you use”, Merriam mentioned.

Prices for available panels are rising, Hand said. In early April, he said the price of a 445-watt panel had risen from around $175 to $225.

Hand, reading an email he received from Trinaa solar company headquartered in China, said the company was in a “holding pattern” until the investigation was resolved.

China dominates the global solar market. In an effort to combat trade practices that disadvantage American manufacturers, the Trump administration first imposed tariffs on solar products from China. Biden extended the policy earlier this year, with some changes.

In February, Auxin Solar Inc., a California-based solar company, filed a petition asking the US Department of Commerce to investigate certain imports of solar cells and panels from Southeast Asia. The survey applies to Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, according to a notice of the International Trade Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce.

Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association and former energy and climate change adviser to former President Barack Obama, told the Associated Press that the investigation could affect up to 80% of solar panel supply in the United States.

During the review period of the investigation, which she described as “flagrant” in a editorial on the organization’s website, tariffs “up to 250% are effectively applied to the majority of US solar module supply – artificially raising the total cost of domestic solar projects to a level that essentially freezes the construction of projects,” she wrote.

Fear of expanded tariffs, which could be retroactive, has prompted many companies to stop shipping to the United States, industry executives say.

In response to claims by solar companies regarding the handling of the investigation, Kevin Jones, director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, took issue with the idea that the administration should not “follow the law and honestly investigate complaints”. brought to them legally.

“To me, there’s nothing but the trust that we should have in the Biden administration and the Commerce Department to look at this in terms of upholding the law and the best interests of the United States in the clean energy industry,” he said.

Peter Sterling, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, an industry group that represents solar power and other renewable companies, said many industry players are looking for more certainty about the investigation and when a decision could be made.

“If there is an idea of ​​the scope of this decision, it helps everyone to plan,” he said.

Paul Lesure, co-founder and president of South Burlington-based Green Mountain Solar, said the investigation indirectly affects the company. Green Mountain Solar primarily works on residential projects, he said, and typically buys panels from companies in South Korea or US companies that have manufacturing facilities in Vietnam and Singapore — not ones that do. the subject of an investigation.

The survey squeezes the market, he said. Those who cannot buy panels from the companies under investigation turn to the remaining manufacturers.

“So these other people are going to the panels that we would actually use,” Lesure said, “which is also causing us supply chain issues and price gouging.”

Rather than relying on a constant flow of panels, the company may need to take out a loan, for example, to “try to buy panels when we can get them so we can continue to deliver to customers”, a he declared.

Sterling is frustrated with the impacts of the investigation. Still, he said he understands the Biden administration was obligated to investigate Auxin Solar’s claims.

Long-term policies and “massive public investment” are needed to support a domestic manufacturing industry in the United States, he said, and until those policies are established, it will be difficult for solar companies to continue to build projects without a constant flow of panels.

“We’re at least three — probably five years away from having a truly viable national solar economy that can meet our needs,” Sterling said.

“You can’t just crush an entire industry trying to stop climate change,” he added.

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