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What a disgraceful scandal a leader of America’s renewable energy industry just spotlighted! The main evidence presented for imposing steep tariffs on some imports of solar panels has been disavowed by a main source of that evidence!

Except the real scandal is the misinformation-y nature of this claim – which is becoming par for the course for certain supporters of a faster transition to a clean energy-dominated economy..

Let’s begin at the beginning. On March 28, the Commerce Department, one of two federal agencies responsible for administering the U.S. trade law system, agreed to investigate charges by a California-based manufacturer of panels that factories in Southeast Asia are being used by China to circumvent the tariffs that began to be imposed in 2012 on panels and key components made in the People’s Republic. The levies aimed to offset China’s practice of selling these panels at prices far below production costs not because of market forces, but because of subsidies for the manufacturers.

But tariffs to counter this predatory tactic, also called dumping, can sometimes be circumvented by two types of schemes that are also sanctionable by U.S. trade law. Under the first, called transshipment, the guilty parties send their finished goods to other foreign countries, where they’re re-labeled and sent off for final sale in America. Under the second, the guilty parties send the parts and components of finished products to factories in other foreign countries, where they’re assembled and then exported to the United States.

It’s the second practice that formed the basis for this latest circumvention allegation, and as standard in trade law cases, the lawyers for the U.S. plaintiff – a company called Auxin Solar – tried to persuade the Commerce Department to probe whether circumvention was occuring with a brief containing evidence they’d gathered. This is the request approved on March 28, and the investigation is still ongoing.

In an op-ed article yesterday afternoon, though, Gregory Wetstone of the American Council on Renewable Energy made a bombshell accusation. Writing in TheHill.com, Wetstone contended that the research company whose findings Auxin’s lawyers heavily relied on to prove their charges claimed that some of their key data had been used inaccurately.

The lawyers attempted to show circumvention by citing findings from the research firm BloombergNEF documenting that fully 70 percent of the value of the solar panels imported into the United States from some plants in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam came from China. If true, this finding would strongly confirm Auxin’s position that the panels were little more than products sent in pieces from China to Southeast Asia, to be snapped together for shipment to the United States – that is, that the anti-China tariffs had indeed been circumvented.

But according to BloombergNEF, the 70 percent figure only referred to the “cash cost” of the panel inputs. Left out were the upfront capital costs of building the Southeast Asian factories themselves – which they argued made clear that these facilities performed the kind of genuine manufacturing of the imported materials that in turn absolved them of the circumvention charge. In trade law terms, the parts and components and other inputs supposedly underwent substantial transformation, and were not simply disassembled pieces of final products.

As should be clear to anyone familiar with manufacturing, though, the scale of the investment needed to build a factory has no intrinsic relationship to the nature of the work it performs. Moreover, it’s just as reasonable to view the upfront investment as a one-time cost required to launch a simple assembly operation aimed at lasting for many years. So the longer this ruse continues, the greater the importance of the cost of the panel inputs.  

At the same time, plaintiff Auxin’s case doesn’t rely solely or even mainly on reason, or on the 70 percent figure however it’s interpreted. It doesn’t even rely solely or even mainly on trade data showing that remarkably soon after the original tariffs were placed on the Chinese-made solar cells, Chinese shipments to the United States nosedived, and shipments from the four Southeast Asian countries began skyrocketing. Nor does it rely solely or significantly on additional trade data showing that these countries’ imports of Chinese-made solar panel parts, components, and materials have also soared, often exponentially, over the last decade.

Instead, the brief also presents abundant evidence — that’s never been challenged by the tariff opponents — that many of the new Southeast Asian factories exporting so many solar panels to the United States themselves are Chinese-built or -acquired, and therefore -owned. For example:

>”Jinko Solar Group is a producer of solar products, including silicon ingots, wafers, solar cells, and modules, with its production predominantly based in China. After imposition of the [anti-dumping tariffs] in 2015, Jinko Solar built a solar cell and module processing facility in Penang, Malaysia.”

>”JA Solar launched a solar cell processing facility in Penang, Malaysia in 2015. JA Solar produces ingots and wafers in its Chinese facilities. When the company first started exporting solar cells from Malaysia, the company stated that ‘raw materials such as silicon wafers were being imported from China . . . .’”

>”LONGi owns and operates a wholly owned facility in Malaysia. Li Zhenguo, President of Longi Green Tech, touted LONGi’s Malaysia factory as ‘mainly targeting the U.S. market,’ recognizing that ‘Chinese solar products are imposed by about 150% import tariffs by the U.S. {so} {i}t’s almost impossible for China-made products to be sold there.’”

>A company representative has stated that “Trina Solar supplies U.S. orders from Thailand (as opposed to from China). Additionally, the Chairman and CEO of Trina Solar stated that Trina Solar’s projects in the pan-Asia region align the company with the Chinese government’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.”

>Suzhou Talesun Solar Technology has directly cited the solar tariffs “as the reason for its Thai facility’s existence by stating that it ‘seized the chance to break through the U.S. market through Thai production capacity.’ Talesun’s company website markets its ability to circumvent the orders on CSPV cells and modules from China: ‘with our factories in China and Thailand, we offer a solution adapted to markets affected by anti-dumping laws such as the United States or Europe.’”

>LONGi Green Tech’s president “touted LONGi’s Vietnam factory as ‘mainly targeting the U.S. market,’ recognizing that shipments from China cannot compete based on existing tariffs.”

>”According to the company’s blog, one reason why Boviet’s [an affiliate of Chinese entity Boway] assembly is based out of Vietnam is because ‘Vietnam is not a U.S. listed Anti-dumping and Countervailing region. No tariffs influence Boviet’s U.S. business, and those cost-savings ultimately trickle down to the buyer.’ Boviet Solar also openly advertises that it sources glass for its solar modules from China.”

>”Chinese solar cell manufacturer ET Solar has reported that it was transferring 300 MW of cell capacity from China to be assembled in Cambodia, where it will also assemble modules to target the U.S. market.”

Somehow Hill op-ed author Wetstone and the alternative energy businesses he helps represent missed all of this. Not that anyone should be surprised. Because for many years they’ve been deceptively describing as the U.S. “solar energy industry” a sector that overwhelmingly consists of companies that install solar power systems for homes, businesses, and utilities.

Certainly they create American jobs and facilitate whatever clean energy transition is proceeding. But this sector generates little value or innovation or productivity growth for the U.S. economy. And it has about as much in common with solar manufacturers as nursing home operators have with the cutting-edge American pharmaceutical industry, or as taxi or ride-sharing companies have with U.S.automakers. Therefore, where the solar panels they stick on American roofs and emplace in lots and other vacant or cleared space are concerned, the cheaper the better, no matter where they come from — including China.

In other words, the U.S. “solar energy industry’s” case against tariffs on Southeast Asian panels fails not only on legal and factual grounds (because circumvention of the China levies is so clearly happening). It fails on policy grounds – except for those who don’t mind much of America’s clean energy future, and all the economic and technological and climate benefits it can create, being made by a hostile dictatorship. No wonder these companies and their leaders are so dependent on spreading misinformation to persuade Washington to lift the solar tariffs.