US solar producers cannot satisfy domestic demand, ITC hearing told

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An inability by U.S. solar cell and module producers to supply the right type of solar components prompted local firms to rely on imported cells, foreign producers have claimed at the first day of the International Trade Commission (ITC) hearing in Washington D.C.

The commission also heard that solar products from China and Taiwan did not harm the U.S. industry, largely because imported products were not competing directly with U.S.-made goods.

The defendants were answering claims brought by the U.S. arm of Germany’s SolarWorld AG that accused Chinese solar companies of using Taiwan manufacturing bases to circumvent duties imposed in 2012 on imported cells.

Preliminary duties have already been imposed by the U.S. Department of Commerce on solar imports from both China and Taiwan, and the Commerce Department is set to make a final decision on December 15 whether to impose final binding tariffs. The ITC’s verdict, however, will not be revealed until mid-January next year.

On the defensive

The case for SolarWorld’s action was put forward by the company’s counsel Tim Brightbill of Washington law firm Wiley Rein LLP. Brightbill said: "Chinese and Taiwanese imports have taken over the U.S. market at precisely the time when U.S. producers should have recovered and thrived. Instead, the U.S. industry is again fighting for its survival."

The initial case brought by SolarWorld in 2012 saw the ITC apply preliminary anti-dumping (AD) and countervailing duties on solar products from China. A second claim was brought earlier this year relating to the Taiwan loophole – a claim that saw the ITC impose another set of sweeping duties, ranging from 26% to 165%.

However, the ITC has heard from several U.S. solar firms that they relied on imported solar cells because the U.S.-made alternatives did not meet the required specifications. "These companies had to rely on Taiwan cells because they cannot get the cells they need from SolarWorld or Suniva," said Neo Solar Power general counsel and representative of the Taiwan Photovoltaic Industry Association, Austin Chiu.

Polly Shaw, VP of government affairs at U.S. solar company SunEdison, remarked: "U.S. suppliers cannot supply the high efficiency cells and high wattage modules that we use for our projects.

"For this reason, in our experience, the U.S. solar products are not interchangeable with the solar products we import."

SolarWorld’s Ardes Johnson, who is the company’s VP of sales in the Americas, argued that the ITC’s decision to impose preliminary duties on Chinese and Taiwanese imports had delivered the positive effect of stemming the "freefall" of solar component prices. "SolarWorld has increased its sales in recent months with the trade duties in place," he said. "But if the duties go away, our sales agreements would be in jeopardy."

The ITC must decide whether there was, in fact, damage done to the U.S. solar industry by these imports and, if so, at what level to impose long-lasting tariffs. Should the hearing conclude, however, that no such damage occurred, then no lasting tariffs will be levied – a scenario that is likely to trigger further price falls among foreign producers.

In the case against SolarWorld’s actions, the representative of Chinese manufacturers – Richard Wiener of Sidley Austin law firm – said: "If SolarWorld succeeds, the burgeoning U.S. solar industry will grind to a halt because the domestic industry cannot satisfy demand and because solar electricity would be uncompetitive at SolarWorld’s desired prices.

"SolarWorld places in peril U.S. climate change goals and 143,000 American solar jobs, all without benefiting U.S. crystalline silicon PV manufacturers."

However, U.S. Senator for Oregon (the state in which SolarWorld America is based) Ron Wyden stressed that the solar industry has been "under siege" by its Chinese competitors for the last five years. "It isn’t that American solar can’t compete," he said, "it is because China isn’t playing by the rules."