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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Oregon solar industry welcomes tariff pause

The solar component of the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility was completed in March 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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The solar component of the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility was completed in March 2022.

Solar workers in Oregon say they’re hopeful President Biden’s decision will ease the shortage of solar panels caused by a federal trade investigation.

Relief may be on the way for Oregon’s solar industry, which has been hampered in recent months by a federal trade investigation.

President Joe Biden on Monday announced a two-year pause on new tariffs on the solar industry. The move is expected to restart the flow of cheaper panels and parts into U.S. ports. Solar workers in Oregon are welcoming the decision and say they hope it will ease a panel shortage that has delayed or killed hundreds of solar projects nationwide.

“While not a complete resolution, the 24 months will allow solar projects to continue and time for the market to find a solution,” said Angela Crowley-Koch, executive director of the Oregon Solar and Storage Industries Association, in an email.

The U.S. Department of Commerce in March launched an investigation into manufacturers in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, which supply about 80% of the solar panels imported by the U.S. The agency seeks to determine whether Chinese companies propped up factories in those countries in order to avoid tariffs.

If the Commerce Department finds panels from the manufacturers in question are indeed subject to tariffs, those duties could have been retroactively applied to panels purchased after the probe began.

The threat of retroactive tariffs halted most imports of solar panels into the U.S., sending prices on stateside products skyrocketing. Biden’s announcement temporarily eliminates that threat, which should allow prices to settle and the market to stabilize.

Mike August with CED Greentech in Portland and Bend said the president’s decision provides clarity to solar importers and distributors.

“Pricing markets can get more efficient information to say, ‘OK, we have this much material now coming,’” August said. “Where before it was, ‘We don’t know how much we’re going to release.’”

Ryan Sheehy of Fleet Development in Enterprise had orders canceled as the Commerce investigation got underway. That forced his company to push back timelines on some larger projects such as the Verde Light Power Project in Ontario.

Sheehy said the president’s announcement, while positive, will not allow the company to finish Verde in 2022 as he had hoped before the investigation started. However, Sheehy added that many projects — in Oregon and elsewhere — that might have otherwise been canceled can now resume.

“People who wouldn’t sell us [solar] modules yesterday, will today,” Sheehy said.

The trade investigation was prompted by a petition from a small solar manufacturer in California, Auxin Solar, which claimed the alleged tariff evasion by Chinese companies was weakening U.S. manufacturing.

In Monday’s announcement, Biden also invoked the Defense Production Act to encourage more manufacturing of solar panels and parts in the U.S. The two-year pause on tariffs will create a “bridge,” the White House said, to continue building solar projects while domestic manufacturing scales up.

Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement Monday that the agency will continue its investigation, but applauded the president’s actions.

“I remain committed to upholding our trade laws and ensuring American workers have a chance to compete on a level playing field,” Raimondo said. “The President’s emergency declaration ensures America’s families have access to reliable and clean electricity while also ensuring we have the ability to hold our trading partners accountable to their commitments.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.