The sky may not be falling: Heliene CEO speaks on anti-circ investigation


In the weeks that have followed the US Department of Commerce’s (DOC) announcement that it will pursue an investigation into solar cell and module manufacturers in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam potentially using parts produced by Chinese companies, voices from across the solar industry have united around the belief that the institution of antidumping and countervailing (AD/CV) tariffs on Chinese goods would have a devastating impact on the industry.

SEIA has updated its earlier projection that the investigation will lead to a module import shortfall of roughly 8GW as hopeful, rather than expected, with the potential for a much worst-case scenario rising; ROTH said that the module procurement process has been turned upside down; and Standard Solar has called on the DOC and the Biden administration to immediately put an end to this “grave threat to the solar industry.”

Ask anyone involved in the American solar industry about the investigation, and you’re likely to hear that is has the potential to be a doomsday event. Well, almost anyone.

Martin Pochtaruk

Martin Pochtaruk is CEO of Heliene, a Canadian PV module maker with factories in Ontario, Minnesota, and Florida, and soon-to-be 900MW of total manufacturing capacity, once the company’s $21 million manufacturing facility in Mountain Iron, Minnesota begins producing modules, which is expected to happen in Q3 of this year. While Heliene is a Canadian company and a US importer, its manufacturing operations in the US allow Pochtaruk to offer the perspective of a non-Auxin American manufacturer, as well as a somewhat dissenting position from the industry’s majority mindset.

“What SEIA attests of trade investigations, going all the way back to 2012, is that trade barriers, stop or slow the progress of development,” said Pochtaruk. “Sometimes that might be the case short term, in the case of the safeguard that never happened. So when the figure was applied on February 7 2018, in 2018, 2019, import levels continue to be the same. So what we’re seeing portrayed as what was going to happen did not actually happen. Will that be the same now? I think we’ll see in a year or so time.”

In building on his position, Pochtaruk shares that now, as in the past, Heliene takes no stance for or against the institution of tariffs, arguing instead that the history of the solar industry shows a consistent ability for the market to be flexible, and adapt to whatever constraints are placed on it. In the instance of AD/CV tariffs on Chinese goods, he expects manufacturers in other countries, namely Korea, Canada, Turkey, and India to step up faster than has been projected, helping to mitigate supply uncertainty.

“There is a demand for circumvention-free products that maybe wasn’t necessarily there before,” said Pochtaruk. “Developers are looking for manufacturing in the US or in countries like Korea, Canada, Turkey, India, with a stronger emphasis than two weeks ago. So this is not only for US manufacturing, I would say this would provide a stronger pull for any product that is made worldwide but not in the investigated countries. In the case of Heliene, we made a decision to invest in the US in 2018. Because of the safeguard, we understood that we needed to be a US manufacturer, besides being a Canadian manufacturer.”

Pochtaruk also outlined his belief that current discourse regarding the investigation is being considered through a strictly-American lens, and that this self-focused approach ignores the capabilities of the worldwide market to step in and alleviate pricing and demand stress.

“When the 2018 safeguard was put in place, the main complaint among developers was that price was going to increase according to the import duty imposed, and the duty imposed was 30%,” said Pochtaruk. “When you look at the pricing of solar modules sold in the market through 2018 and 2019, there was no increase in price. Why? Because the market is a global market. The demand in 2018 was low, compared to supply. Everybody lowered their costs and lower their margins so that they continue to sell at the same price. With this, what I’m trying to say is that there’s not an import duty in one country that will change the dynamics and the price of the product worldwide… I don’t think anybody knows what is going to be demand and supply on a worldwide level in six months, or a year, and we will continue to adapt to those situations with whatever the wind brings.”

However, all of that is not to say that Pochtaruk views the investigation as a good thing for the solar industry, nor American manufacturers. One position that he does share with the greater industry is that growth comes from long-term certainty and predictability.

“There’s no certainty on the result of the investigation to say; ‘This is going to double US manufacturing,’ or ‘It’s going to trigger solar cell and wafer manufacturing,'” explained Pochtaruk. “So when you look the value chain, we start with polysilicon. We know there’s no polysilicon in the US to supply the US demand for solar modules, but you need investment in ingot making, investments into workforce and investment into cells. And that would say that will only happen if if we are able to get either a confirmed long run on import control, or an incentive, which I think is the way to do it: not through instituting these measures, but through incentives.

Where Pochtaruk does take issue is in the claim that the accusations in the petition are baseless, and that it was uncouth of DOC to take up the investigation in the first place. He stands firm in the belief that it is the responsibility of DOC to investigate requests that come from within an industry, “whether it’s one player or 10 of them.” He shares that both he, personally, and Heliene, as a company, believe in the rule of law, and that DOC has an obligation to investigate claims, just as much as it has the right to determine no wrongdoing has occurred.

“What, irks me is when developers or SEIA, as an association, say, ‘The Department of Commerce cannot do this,'” said Pochtaruk. “That’s wrong. It’s like telling a jury that they should all go home and do nothing.”

pv magazine has reached out to SEIA for comment, and will provide any updates or statements as they are received.

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