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White House Shift on Solar Tariffs Decried by Governor

June 9, 2022 by Dan McCue
Michael Koralewski, chief manufacturing operations officer, First Solar Inc. (Photo: First Solar)

PERRYSBURG, Ohio — Ohio’s Republican governor is decrying a Biden administration decision to suspend tariffs on solar panels from Southeast Asia, calling the move a threat to American manufacturers, including First Solar, which is currently building its third manufacturing plant in his state.

On Thursday, Gov. Mike DeWine said the decision to suspend tariffs on solar panels imported from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Vietnam for a period of two years will “have the effect of favoring China at the expense of American solar panel manufacturers who create good-paying jobs for Ohioans and play by the rules such as First Solar in Perrysburg.”

First Solar, which is the only U.S.-headquartered company among the world’s 10 largest solar manufacturers, has not commented directly on the tariff decision itself, but did announce today that its manufacturing complex in Ohio has received a “Platinum” rating from the Responsible Business Alliance.

Coincidentally or not, the alliance’s validated assessment program audit critiques companies on the same kinds of issues that have been problem areas for manufacturers in other parts of the world.

These include fair labor practices and human rights, health and safety measures, environmental performance, business integrity, ethics and supporting management systems.

Platinum is the highest possible rating awarded on completion of a full VAP audit. First Solar’s new rating will remain valid until May 5, 2024.

“We’re incredibly proud that our Ohio facilities set the benchmark for socially- and environmentally-responsible solar manufacturing, based on an independent, impartial standard used across manufacturing industries,” said Mark Widmar, First Solar’s chief executive officer, in a written statement.

“The fact that we achieved Platinum status on our first try is a tribute to the passion and purpose of our people who exemplify First Solar’s commitment to responsible solar. We have demonstrated that competitiveness and scale do not need to come at the cost of people or the environment, and that our country’s transition to a sustainable energy future can be powered by responsibly-produced solar technology.”

First Solar’s Northwest Ohio footprint is the Western Hemisphere’s largest solar manufacturing complex, employing the majority of its 200-person U.S. workforce.

The company is investing $680 million in building a third factory that will expand the complex by an annual capacity of 3.3 GW. The new facility is expected to be commissioned in the first half of 2023 and when fully operational will scale the company’s Ohio footprint to a total annual capacity of 6 GW, making it the largest fully vertically integrated solar manufacturing complex outside of China.

It will also add another 500 people to the company’s payroll.

In a letter sent to President Joe Biden on Thursday, DeWine urged the administration to reconsider its position on solar tariffs.

“It is imperative that we, as Americans, support and increase our solar energy panel manufacturing capacity in the United States to help build our energy independence and create jobs for Americans,” he wrote.

In addition to its Ohio manufacturing facilities, First Solar also operates factories in Vietnam and Malaysia, and is building a new 3.3 GW factory in India that is expected to be commissioned in the second half of 2023.

With First Solar’s expansion in the United States and India, the company anticipates that its nameplate manufacturing capacity will double to 16 GW in 2024.

DeWine’s position is markedly different from many in the solar industry who applauded President Biden’s decision earlier this week.

For instance, Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, called the decision to wave the tariffs a “thoughtful approach” to addressing the “current crisis of a paralyzed solar supply chain.”

“The president is providing improved business certainty today while harnessing the power of the Defense Production Act for tomorrow,” Hooper said. “[This] action will protect existing solar jobs, will lead to increased employment in the solar industry and foster a robust solar manufacturing base here at home.”

She also called Biden’s action “a much-needed reprieve from this industry-crushing probe.” 

“During the two-year tariff suspension window, the U.S. solar industry can return to rapid deployment while the Defense Production Act helps grow American solar manufacturing,” she said.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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