Tag: green industry

Solar Panels Trade Case Mocks Washington’s Ways

Later today the U.S. Department of Commerce is expected to announce preliminary antidumping duties on solar panels from China. This case might normally be met with an exasperated sigh and chalked up as just another example of myopic, self-flagellating, capricious U.S. antidumping policy toward China.

But in this instance the absurdity is magnified by the fact that Washington has already devoted billions of dollars in production subsidies and consumption tax credits in an effort to invent a non-trivial market for solar energy in the United States.  Imposing duties only undermines that objective. With brand new levies on imports to add to the duties already being imposed on the same products to “countervail” the lower prices afforded U.S. consumers by the Chinese government’s production subsidies, the administration’s already-expensive mission will become even more so – perhaps prohibitively so.

It’s not that President Obama and the Congress woke up one morning and agreed to craft policies that simultaneously promote and deter U.S. solar energy consumption. But that’s what Washington – with its meddling ethos and self-righteous politicians – has wrought: policies working at cross-purposes.

The Economic Report of the President in 2010 (published before Solyndra became a household name) boasts of the administration’s tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for production and tax credits for consumption of solar panels. This industrial policy continues to this day and there is no greater cheerleader for solar than the president himself. In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama said:

I’m directing my administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.

One month later, noting that 16 solar projects have been approved on public land since he took office, the president said:

[Solar] is an industry on the rise. It’s a source of energy that’s becoming cheaper. And more and more businesses are starting to take notice.

The president has couched his support for solar in terms of what he sees as the environmental imperative of reducing carbon emissions and slowing global warming. Thus his policy aim is to encourage consumption by making solar less expensive to retail consumers with production subsidies and consumption tax credits. (Of course, lower-cost solar is a mirage – accounting smoke and mirrors – because the subsidies come from current taxpayers and the tax credits deprive the Treasury of revenues already earmarked, forcing the government to borrow, burdening future taxpayers with principle and interest debt, which is paid with higher taxes down the road).

However, the president also sees solar and other green technologies as industries that will create great value, spawn new ideas and technologies, keep the United States at the top of the global value chain, and serve as reliable jobs creators going forward. And he seems to think that realization of that objective requires his running interference on behalf of U.S. producers.  He says:

Countries like China are moving even faster… . I’m not going to settle for a situation where the United States comes in second place or third place or fourth place in what will be the most important economic engine in the future.

There is nothing incompatible about holding the simultanous beliefs that greater use of solar power could reduce carbon emissions and that a solar industry has great potential to spur innovation, create value, and support good-paying jobs.  But promoting the realization of both premises simultaneously through policy intervention is a fools errand, and we are caught in its midst.

Efforts to protect and nurture these chosen industries by keeping foreign competitors at bay is incompatible with the president’s environmentally-driven objective of increasing retail demand for solar energy.  Intervening to reduce the supply of solar panels will cause prices to rise and rising prices (particularly in light of abundant cheap alternatives like natural gas) will cause demand to fall.  Sure, we may be left with some protected producers in the short-run, but how will they endure without customers.

That question is, apparently, far from minds of perennial interventionist Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and arch-protectionist Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).  Just this week, the duo released a proposal that would make ineligible for the 30% tax credit, solar panels made outside of the United States, claiming that “Chinese solar panel producers’ eligibility for tax credit undercuts Amercian companies and jobs.”  The senators should tell that to the American business owners and employees in the much larger and more economically significant downstream industries that install and service solar panels in the United States.  The proposal would cause a dramtic increase in the retail price of solar panels and imperil livelihoods in these downstream industries.

This Cato video should be required viewing for Washington’s meddling policymakers.

President’s Fealty to Antidumping Lobby Kills Jobs and Depresses Growth

Rhetorically, President Obama is a champion of industry—as long as it’s green. To put our money where his mouth is, the president has already devoted over $100 billion in direct subsidies and tax credits to promote investment in solar panel, wind harnessing, lithium ion battery, and other industries he deems crucial to “winning the future.” (See Economic Report of the President, 2011, P. 129, Box 6-2 “Clean Energy Investments in the Recovery Act” for a list of some of those subsidies.) Concerning those industries, the president said in his 2010 SOTU address:

Countries like China are moving even faster… I’m not going to settle for a situation where the United States comes in second place or third place or fourth place in what will be the most important economic engine of the future.

To be sure, I am opposed to industrial policy, which presumes that one person or a cabal of self-anointed soothsayers knows how the future will unfold. But the story I am about to share is, I think, instructive in describing endemic policy dissonance within this administration and speaks to what even the president’s staunchest supporters describe as half-heartedness and an incapacity or unwillingness to follow through. Some chalk it up to indifference, but it’s really an aversion to making choices that could offend potential supporters.

While the president talks up the solar panel industry and commits our resources to its development, other policies of his administration undermine its success and encourage offshoring of production and the jobs that go with it. Dow Corning is one of the world’s largest producers of silicones, which are the most crucial components of solar panel production. The foremost ingredient in these silicones is silicon metal, which costs nearly twice the world market price in the United States because of antidumping restrictions on imports of the raw material from China and Russia (two of the world’s largest suppliers). Under U.S. antidumping law, Dow Corning and all other consumers of silicon metal were forbidden from participating formally in the proceedings that lead to the imposition of the duties.

As I described in a recent Cato policy paper, this is more than just tough luck for a few companies. This is economic self-flagellation on a grand scale. The antidumping statute prohibits consideration of the impact of prospective duties on downstream industries or on the economy as a whole, yet policymakers—having been steamrolled by the pro-antidumping lobby—have given scant consideration to the idea that this is plainly stupid policy, particularly in a globally integrated economy characterized by transnational supply chains and cross-border investment. In such an environment, if one hopes the best for the country’s value-added industries, there should be no restrictions on raw material inputs ever (a policy being embraced by other governments around the world).

Alas, the silicon metal restrictions constitute a big problem for Dow Corning and other industrial consumers of silicon metal, but a bigger problem for the economy. To compete with producers of silicones—the solar panel industries—in Europe, Japan, Canada, and China, Dow Corning is forced to consider moving production abroad so that it is not at such a large cost disadvantage from the outset. As Dow Corning officials put it in a very informative letter:

If Dow Corning were to move the production occurring within its Kentucky operations to any country outside the U.S., it would be more competitive by simply having access to the same global supply of raw materials as all other competitors.

Dow Corning could move offshore, a move it would prefer not to make, and probably recover the costs of the transition in short order. But doing so would reduce U.S. economic activity and destroy U.S. jobs, which would have a more lasting adverse impact. So, in an effort to avoid offshoring its operations—a move that one would think the administration would welcome—Dow Corning submitted an application to have some of its silicone production facilities in Kentucky designated as a Foreign Trade Subzone. The key policy objective of foreign trade zones, according to the former president of the National Association of Foreign Trade Zones is:

The optimization of economic development in the United States creating jobs, investment and value-added activity. The current regulations strike a balance that considers antidumping and countervailing duty petitioners, importers and U.S. manufacturers. Imported products that are made with components that may be dumped or subsidized are not subject to antidumping duty or countervailing duty. If these duties can be avoided by locating a factory in a foreign country, the Board should at least consider allowing it to happen here for export so that American workers can benefit. That is what the regulation achieves.

Basically, Dow Corning was proposing that to balance its need for access to world-priced silicon metal with the country’s need for economic activity and jobs, it would bring in silicon metal from foreign sources, including silicon metal from China and Russia, to be transformed into silicons in that subzone. Antidumping duties on silicon metals that were used to make silicones that were subsequently exported without first “entering the commerce of the United States” would be waived, while antidumping duties on silicon metals used to make silicones sold in the United States would be subject to the full payment of duties.

But during the period in which the FTZ application was pending, an army of professional antidumping law supporters—the Committee to Support U.S. Trade Laws (CSUSTL), the United Steelworkers Union, the Steel Manufacturers Association, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), and others—argued that granting the designation would serve only to circumvent the antidumping order, and that the well-being of the petitioner was all that mattered under the antidumping law.

After hearings, several comment periods, and deliberation the Foreign Trade Zones Board granted Dow Corning’s FTZ request, but “subject to a restriction prohibiting the admission of foreign status silicon metal subject to an antidumping or countervailing duty order,” thereby negating the entire purpose of the application and effectively daring Dow Corning to shut down its Kentucky operations and move abroad. That decision was signed by the acting assistant secretary for import administration—the same person charged with overseeing the Commerce Department’s notoriously pro-petitioner, antidumping regime, and, for the record, a person who answers to President Obama.

Did the president know what was at stake and look the other way? Or did he not even know? Neither answer reflects particularly well on a man claiming to have a plan for job creation and economic growth.