Federal investigation halts solar power plans to see if China broke trade rules A federal investigation of allegations that China is illegally avoiding duties on solar panels sold to U.S. companies is putting the brakes on the nation's solar power build-out.

Solar projects are on hold as U.S. investigates whether China is skirting trade rules

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hundreds of large-scale solar power projects are on hold in the United States. It's a potential threat to President Biden's climate agenda, and it's because of something done by President Biden's administration. The industry is reacting to a federal investigation of potential trade violations involving solar panels bought from Asian suppliers. Maine Public Radio's Fred Bever reports.

FRED BEVER, BYLINE: Lately, some of Maine's gently rolling hills have been sprouting long rows of solar arrays. Recent state climate policies are driving a renewable energy boom. The procurement manager for this 35-acre project, Leo Azevedo, says even the mowing service avoids fossil fuels.

LEO AZEVEDO: You might have seen some droppings at the entrance of the site. So we have a local sheep farmer that brings his sheep to graze on the grass.

BEVER: This array can power around 1,500 homes. And thanks in part to low-cost solar modules sourced from Southeast Asia, that electricity will cost consumers a good deal less than fossil fuel energy sources. But just across the fence, a bigger, even cheaper solar electricity project is on hold.

AZEVEDO: So right now, most of the panel manufacturers aren't actually taking orders.

BEVER: That's because the Department of Commerce is investigating whether Chinese panel manufacturers avoided duty requirements by funneling components through affiliates in nearby countries. Azevedo says if Commerce finds violations, it has wide latitude to assess duties retroactive to the investigation's start in April.

AZEVEDO: Worst-case scenario, you can think about retroactive tariffs of up to 240%. But we really don't know what it is. So it's just too much risk to order panels right now. And that's just the end of it.

BEVER: In a recent industry survey, most large-scale U.S. solar developers said uncertainty was causing delays and cancellations, putting billions of dollars' worth of carbon-free energy capacity at risk.

ABIGAIL ROSS HOPPER: The investigation alone is wiping out a decade of solar job growth. It's stunning.

BEVER: Abigail Ross Hopper of the Solar Energy Industries Association says as many as 100,000 jobs are at stake at a time, she adds, that was supposed to be the green economy's moment in the sun.

HOPPER: We have a president who believes in climate change and addressing the crisis. We have a House and a Senate that are controlled by Democrats.

BEVER: The problem's scope is still emerging. An Indiana utility says it has to postpone several solar projects and keep a coal-fired plant running years longer than planned.

MAMUN RASHID: Yes, doom and gloom scenarios are out there. I've seen all the headlines.

BEVER: That's Mamun Rashid, CEO of Auxin Solar, the small California panel maker that petitioned the government to level the solar panel playing field. Rashid's since been condemned by many in the industry. But he says fair trade is fair trade.

RASHID: I think the business models will need to be reassessed and will be reassessed. But no one is going to walk away from hundreds of millions or billion-dollar businesses.

BEVER: But for now, the sector's recent surge is sputtering. At the Maine solar plant, construction supervisor Adam Farkes gives a wistful look to the untouched site next door.

ADAM FARKES: It seems a little bit counterproductive to have these goals for climate change. And then at the same time, you're not letting us build anything. We should be building.

BEVER: Investigators are expected to make a preliminary finding in August. The solar industry and its political allies are calling for a speedier review.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Falmouth, Maine.

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