Essay | The small California company upending America’s solar industry

Essay | The small California company upending America’s solar industry

Nuno Marques/Unsplash License

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Business & Economics, Renewable Energy, Solar, Storyfest, Storyfest 2024

America’s solar industry is in trouble. 

Who and what’s the cause of this are questions not easily answered. Some point to complex supply chains. Others point to problems with domestic innovation. And a few point to Mamun Rashid, the CEO of Auxin Solar, which the Wall Street Journal calls “The Most-Hated Solar Company in America.”

The reasons for this are several. Auxin filed a petition with the Commerce Department in 2022 accusing several Chinese solar manufacturers of evading U.S. tariffs. Last August, the Commerce Department ruled that four companies in Southeast Asia circumvented American tariffs on Chinese made components. As a result, sweeping new solar tariffs are set to face the industry in June 2024. The countries in which those tariffs will be levied account for “nearly three-quarters of solar modules imported to the United States.”

Tariffs are taxes on the import of foreign goods. They are paid by the domestic company who is purchasing those goods. 

“We are facing an unprecedented moment in American solar. Many companies have relied on cheap foreign labor for their products. What we’re doing is shedding light on faulty business practices that favor China and harm American workers. We’re fighting for energy independence,” Rashid said.

Yet, many clean energy advocates have resoundingly criticized Auxin. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm stated in an interview with NPR, “At stake is the complete smothering of the investment and the jobs and the independence that we would be seeking as a nation to get our fuel from our own generation sources.”

Such advocates anticipate the ruling will make solar projects in America far more expensive and lengthy. According to CNN, the ruling has apparently stalled many U.S. solar projects, upending an industry critical to a clean energy future. 

This frustration, Rashid claims, reflects just how reliant America’s solar industry is on foreign supply chains, many of which seep through China. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Chinese manufacturers make around 63% of the polysilicon used in most solar panels globally, and more than two-thirds of the wafers that are the next step in the manufacturing process.”

“What a decision like this forces businesses to do is rethink the way they conduct business,” said Rashid. “Many companies wouldn’t be as angry as they are if they hadn’t made the mistake of relying on China, so now the band-aid is peeled off and they need to develop new long-term plans. We need to incentivize companies to play by the rules and produce in America.”

Rashid notes that COVID exacerbated already dangerous supply chains, shedding light on American manufacturers’ reliance on foreign labor. That is what inspired him to pursue the investigation with the Commerce Department. Now, he says, America’s solar industry bears the burden of re-shoring the supply chain. That is a process he believes tariffs will set in motion.

Solar panels in Indiana. (American Public Power Association/Unsplash License)

Clean energy advocates in America believe in the need for a robust domestic solar industry. It’s an urgent policy priority. But they say in order to achieve this, we need the global supply chain in the interim.

They say it will simply take too long to accomplish energy independence to afford shattering the global supply chain, an outcome that would undoubtedly impede a clean energy future. One of these advocates is Abigail Ross Hopper, the CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the trade association representing America’s solar industry. She vehemently opposes Auxin’s investigation.

“The bottom line is that we all want energy independence and for America’s solar industry to thrive. But in order to achieve those long-term goals, we’ll need to rely on the global supply chain in the short-term to continue building and supporting solar projects in America over the next three to five years.” Hopper said.

To re-shore America’s solar supply chain and meet this critical moment, both Rashid and Hopper note it will take time. But there are important steps being taken right now to bolster America’s industry. Among these steps is the Inflation Reduction Act, which offers economic incentives for solar companies to produce in America. 

And while Rashid applauds the IRA, he still says at the heart of the debate is the need for American companies to re-evaluate their best practices and no longer rely on imports from Southeast Asia. 

“For far too long, American companies have benefited from foreign producers that violate American law. The IRA is an important first step, but we need long-term solutions from the businesses themselves, a commitment that they will no longer rely on unfair and, quite frankly, illegal activity in the supply chain.

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