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Schatz pressures commerce secretary on solar investigation

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, called on U.S. commerce secretary Gina Raimondo Wednesday to be more engaged and open in helping to resolve a tariff investigation that threatens to derail the domestic solar energy industry.

In a tense exchange with Raimando during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing, Schatz repeatedly emphasized the urgency of the situation and the need for Raimando to be more personally engaged.

“I want to know that you are alarmed and I want to know that you are going to update the members of the senate who have expressed their concerns in a bipartisan basis with some pace,” Schatz told Raimondo.

Raimondo responded affirmatively but also retorted, “There’s a process, a law, and I have to implement the law.”

At issue is an ongoing investigation conducted by the commerce department’s International Trade Administration into whether Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are avoiding antidumping and countervailing duty protections by using parts manufactured in China to produce crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells and modules.

The investigation was initiated by a complaint from Auxin Solar, which manufactures parts used in solar-energy systems.

Solar industry insiders fear that exorbitant tariffs of up to 250% will be attached to solar-energy parts and equipment produced by the four countries, which collectively account for roughly 80% of all such production.

The Solar Energy Industries Association said additional tariffs could result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs industrywide.

For tariffs to be warranted, investigators would need to determine that the manufacturing done in the four countries with regard to so-called wafer-to-cell conversion is minor and insignificant. Schatz said this claim is already “facially not true” based on previous judgements.

Raimondo emphasized that ITA investigators are responsible for fact-finding and that the department’s role in the matter is “as essentially a judge, a quasi-judicial capacity.”
“We’re not even allowed to talk about this extensively,” she said, before offering Schatz an opportunity to speak with investigators over the phone.

Schatz rebuffed the claim.

“The administrative authority in this statute is the secretary, right?” he said. “So it’s not like (it’s) a scientist on some independent panel of civil service professionals. That authority is vested in you. There is nothing inappropriate about you being more engaged in the process.

“What I want for you to contemplate is that you do have the discretion to get a little more personally engaged,” Schatz said. “It doesn’t jeopardize the independence of the investigation. Informing Congress as to the status of it is not in any way improper. Finally, we are in a major, major hurry because the solar industry in the United States is at a halt.”

Raimondo assured Schatz that the investigation would be completed as quickly as possible before the August deadline.

“I hear you,” she said. “There’s nothing that prevents us from going faster, and I assure you we are going to go as fast as possible, making sure we tick and tie the process and don’t cut corners. If we can do better than August, we certainly will.”

Fallout from the investigation and its related supply chain issues is already mounting.

Northern Indiana Public Service Co. announced last week that it will delay closing its largest coal-fired power plant for two years because of uncertainty of future solar projects.

NIPSCO has 10 solar projects representing $2 billion of investment planned to replace capacity when its coal-fueled facilities were retired. All have been delayed because of uncertainty surrounding the investigation.