Solar importers, too, have expressed dissatisfaction with the decision, saying that the two-year pause is not enough time to establish sufficient manufacturing capacity outside China to meet rising U.S. demand.
Enormous planned investments in solar energy have raised the stakes of the debate. The Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping new climate law signed by President Biden in August, provides roughly $37 billion in incentives for companies to produce solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other crucial minerals in the United States, aiming to reverse the longstanding migration of clean energy manufacturing to China and elsewhere.
The clash is the latest chapter in a decade-long conflict between the United States and China over the solar industry. In 2012, the United States began imposing duties on Chinese solar panels, arguing that Chinese manufacturers were unfairly selling their products in the United States at prices below the cost of production. Chinese solar manufacturers shifted their operations to Taiwan instead, but the United States soon expanded its tariffs to apply to Taiwan, as well.
In recent years, Chinese companies have set up new manufacturing operations in Southeast Asia, and exports of solar products to the United States from Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia have exploded. In many cases, these factories appear to rely on raw materials sourced largely from China, like polysilicon.
That business model has proved problematic in more ways than one. The U.S. government has found that major Chinese producers of polysilicon and solar products are guilty of using forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China and has banned any products using that polysilicon from the United States.
Auxin Solar and other domestic manufacturers have also said that the boom in business in Southeast Asia was an attempt by Chinese companies to evade the duties that the United States had imposed on Chinese products.
In a preliminary decision on the case on Friday, officials at the Commerce Department agreed, at least for some cases. The Commerce Department will now require solar companies exporting to the United States from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia to certify that a significant proportion of their materials are coming from outside China. Otherwise, companies in those countries will be subject to the same duties paid by their Chinese suppliers starting in 2024. The Commerce Department will continue to review the case and issue its final decision on the matter on May 1, 2023.