Six members of Congress sign letter urging DOC to continue solar anti-circumvention investigation


US Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bob Casey (D-PA), along with US Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH-9), sent a letter to President Biden expressing their support for continued Department of Commerce (DOC) investigation into the alleged anti-circumvention violations of Chinese solar panel exporters and module manufacturers operating in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and urging the president to “Shield [the] American solar manufacturing industry from unfair foreign competition.”

The letter takes direct issue with previous instances of political and industry leaders calling for the Department of Commerce to swiftly end its investigation, referring to these petitions as “well-funded, overwhelming special interest political pressure seeking to undermine an independent, quasi-judicial investigation.” The letter also alleges that such petitions are being pursued to undermine the integrity of trade enforcement laws and the independence of the federal workforce.

The letter also suggests foul play, with regard to influencing public opinion, within the solar industry, saying that it is “troubling that corporate lobbying against a simple investigation would reach this level of mass hysteria if there was not some concern over what career civil servants at DOC may uncover.” The letter calls out the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) by name as the party spearheading a campaign “advertising and lobbying to urge political interference in the trade enforcement process.”

A matter of security

Outside of a baseline support for the health of the US solar manufacturing industry, the letter also raises concerns around national cybersecurity in an environment where China dominates module supply.

Solar energy is vulnerable to cyberattack through solar photovoltaic inverters and microchips or microcontrollers embedded into a module’s junction box, which can be programmed. These smart modules look virtually identical to a traditional photovoltaic module. By relying on Chinese-made solar panels, we jeopardize America’s energy security well beyond this administration.

The issue of Chinese cyber attacks via solar inverters is one that comes up frequently in conversations of national security, and one where money is already being directed to mitigate the threat. Alan Mantooth and his team at the University of Arkansas’ National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission have been given $3.6 million in grant money from the US Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office to develop sophisticated yet low-cost tools to protect the power electronics housed within inverters.

“Inverters represent a vulnerability in the sense that we have to communicate with them,” Mantooth told pv magazine in a 2021 interview. The point of contact that enables that two-way communications to occur also means “the grid is vulnerable” to a potential attack.

Inverters are essentially Internet of Things devices that share their electronics DNA with devices like smart thermostats, TVs, and refrigerators. Mantooth looks at the problem of hardening a solar inverter against a cyber intruder as involving both hardware and software. If no one inserts a hardware trojan horse, then the device can be considered protected, he said.

Software presents a different case. Here, he and his research team assume that a bad actor can access the software that operates an inverter’s power electronics and can manipulate the software to cause harm.

Inverter functionality is addressed under the IEEE 1547 standard, which was revised in 2018 and is currently being rolled out in a range of regulatory rules that cover grid interconnection. Underwriters Laboratories also modified its inverter certification and standard to require voltage ride-through, frequency ride-through, anti-islanding, volt-var, and frequency-watt functionalities, all aimed at improving grid resiliency.

Import freeze fakeout 

The letter also alleges that the freeze on solar module imports that the US has experienced since the beginning of the investigation is “a conscious choice by Chinese manufacturers to temporarily constrain supply on the American market to exert more political pressure on this administration.”

If anything, there seems to be a deliberate exploitative use of this investigation as an excuse to break American contracts and divert product to the European Union, where prices for solar products have skyrocketed in recent months due to the war in Ukraine.

Due to the investigation and freeze on solar module imports, SEIA has lowered its solar installation forecasts for 2022 and 2023 by 46%. SEIA has predicted that the case will result in a drop of 24 GW of planned solar capacity over the next two years, which is more solar than the industry installed in all of 2021.

SEIA’s survey, with over 700 responses current to April 26, 83% of respondents that purchase or use modules reported cancellations or delays in their module supply agreements. 13 states had 100% of respondents share that they were experiencing delayed or canceled module supply. Responses have outlined to SEIA that a total of 318 utility scale projects accounting for 51 GW of solar capacity and 6 GWh of attached battery storage are being cancelled or delayed. What’s more is that a large percentage of delayed projects could move into the realm of cancelation, as developers don’t know when they might be able to get modules and som delays may drag on to the point of project failure.

Vocal minority

Today’s letter stands alone as the most visible and vocal support for a continued investigation. On May 3, 22 US Senators composed a letter, sent to President Biden, urging the president to review the investigation “swiftly” and make an expedited preliminary decision, one that they hope will consider “the significant policy ramifications on American businesses, workers, and ratepayers.” Signers of the letter include Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Tim Kaine (D-VA).

Just over two weeks later, on May 19, 85 members of the House of Representatives signed a petition to President Biden expressing “grave concern for the economic and environmental impacts” of the inquiry.

The petition reads: 

A recently released survey of over 700 solar companies found that 83% of respondents were experiencing delays or cancelations from their CSPV suppliers. A project-level survey found that more than 50 gigawatts of new solar projects are currently canceled or delayed because of the Commerce inquiry. Modeling suggests that these cancellations and delays could cost the industry more than 100,000 jobs and increase CO2 emissions by an additional 364 million metric tons of CO2 between now and 2035, which is the equivalent emissions of 97 coal-fired power plants.

The petition continued that the signees are strong supporters of the domestic solar manufacturing sector, but that this inquiry would not benefit the industry, outside a few select firms. It noted that the majority of US solar manufacturing jobs are involved not in creating modules, but in producing mounting, racking, trackers, and other balance of system components, so the probe does little help to boost existing US companies.

The petitioners suggested that instead conducting of this investigation, which likely won’t meaningfully benefit domestic manufacturing, enacting legislation like the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act and a long-term extension of the solar investment tax credit would pave the way for a US supply chain.

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