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Solar tensions spill over into war of words

26 Oct 2011

New SolarWorld-led US coalition slams Chinese rivals over environmental record as war of words escalates.

The US International Trade Commission (ITC) will hold a conference at its Washington, DC, headquarters on November 8 to hear claims from both sides of the growing spat between certain US-based solar companies and their rivals in China and decide whether to begin investigating.

The Coalition for American Solar Manufacturers (CASM) sparked the war of words with an anti-dumping filing to the US Department of Commerce and the ITC on October 19, in which it accused China of providing “massive” subsidies for its domestic crystalline silicon solar wafer, cell and module manufacturers.

With low-cost modules flooding the global market and slack demand so far this year, prices have plummeted in the c-Si supply chain, impacting manufacturers around the world. The tension over solar products comes amid long-standing friction between the US and China over the latter’s approach to intellectual property rights and currency valuation.

China soon poured scorn on the CASM filing, with Reuters reporting the Commerce Ministry as calling on the US to “scrupulously abide by its promise to avoid adopting protectionist measures on solar cell products…and adopt more rational means of handling trade frictions”.

With a Commerce Ministry official reportedly adding that China’s policies met World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, and were designed to address climate change and energy security, the CASM responded with a barely-concealed fury on October 21.

Its statement, which read more like a rant, was authorized by SolarWorld Industries America president and CASM spokesman Gordon Brinser. Among other things, it slammed China for “gutting manufacturing and jobs in the US”; “restricting exports of rare-earth minerals”; having “ineffectual intellectual property enforcement”; and crippling the US solar industry through “predatory and illegal aggression”.

Environmental card
China’s playing of the environmental card merely poured fuel on the fire, prompting a similarly vehement response in which the CASM accused China of "polluting its own people". The organization's statement pointed to a recent incident at Jinko Solar’s manufacturing site in Haining City. The incident, which Jinko says was the result of a leak of fluoride into a local brook from a waste storage warehouse, prompted uproar among local residents, according to a New York Times report.

“If the government of China and its state-sponsored solar industry are concerned about the environment, they should develop a solar market in their own country, stiffen their environmental rules to match western standards and produce solar products using the same high standards followed in the US,” vented the CASM statement.

In its version of events, the Chinese manufacturer appeared to blame bad weather for the incident, saying that “unexpected and extreme rain conditions may have caused a small amount of waste containing fluoride to flow into the nearby brook via the factory’s drainage system”.

Jinko, which suspended production at the site on September 17, has now resumed operations there and appears to be on something of a public relations drive, announcing the sponsorship of the German national football (soccer) team, “reaching out” to local communities, and saying that it will allow an international environmental, health and safety company to carry out an audit of all its facilities.

On October 25, Jinko also responded to the CASM petition, merely saying that it was reviewing the ITC filing and stressing that the petition represented the views of US manufacturers, and not the US government. Another large Chinese manufacturer, Yingli, expressed similar sentiment in its response, while Suntech – the largest of all the manufacturers – also pointed out that each company accused in the petition would respond individually.

Written submissions for the ITC hearing from those presenting are due three days before the November 8 conference, and the ITC must reach a preliminary determination on whether to investigate the CASM allegations by December 5. Any subsequent investigation is likely to take around a year, after which action may be taken.

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