U.S. trade authorities to rule on import duties for Silevo

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SolarCity has received tremendous publicity from its plans to build its “gigafactory” in the U.S. state of New York, which will represent the largest PV module production in one site not only in the United States, but the Western Hemisphere.

But while SolarCity is promising to bring jobs back to the United States, its high-efficiency module subsidiary Silevo appears to currently maintain manufacturing in China as well as California. The company, which SolarCity acquired in 2014, is now attempting to avoid U.S. import duties.

Silevo makes PV modules based on amorphous silicon and oxide layers combined with n-type monocrystalline silicon wafers, in a heterojunction design. In December the company petitioned to be excluded from import duties on Chinese solar products on the claim that it makes a thin-film product. Thin film PV is exempt from duties on crystalline silicon solar cells and modules from China.

SolarWorld, which successfully petitioned for import duties on PV products from China in 2012 and 2014, thinks otherwise, noting that Silevo’s technology includes a crystalline silicon wafer. “These in our view are clearly subject merchandise,” argues Tim Brightbill, an attorney with the firm Wiley Rein which represents SolarWorld.

“These are plainly crystalline silicon products. Their website refers to them as such, their sales products refer to them as such.”

Silevo’s website states that the company currently has 32 MW of annual PV manufacturing capacity in Hangzhou, China and that it seeks to expand to 230 MW. However, the website is not clear on whether this facility produces modules as well as PV cells. It is also not clear how recent this information is, and SolarCity did not respond to pv magazine requests for information and comment.

U.S. import duty rates on PV modules imported from Chinese producers that did not receive a separate rate are currently set at 239%, a prohibitively high level, and SolarCity may be in a bind if it is not able to get its factory in Buffalo online in time. The company was supposed to begin manufacturing at the gigafactory by the end of this year, but during its Q4 2015 results call SolarCity revealed that it was several quarters behind schedule.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration expects a preliminary ruling in the case on April 4.