- - Monday, June 6, 2022

Dependencies on authoritarian states are being placed under increased scrutiny, with democratic nations recognizing that these are, at best, critical vulnerabilities and, at worst, a direct threat. Built over years, these dependencies are not addressable overnight and can hamper an effective economic response to acts of aggression and human rights violations.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading voices have called for a rethink of long-term energy security strategies and the accelerated deployment of renewables. Here in the United States, the Biden administration has identified solar energy as an opportunity to secure our energy independence by getting “our fuel from our own generation sources.”

While it is true that democracies can leverage renewables in order to decouple themselves from autocracies that supply their fuel, it is not quite that simple. Sunlight is a free fuel but the solar panels needed to convert photons into electrons aren’t free. In fact, the production of solar panels, and the value chain that makes it possible to produce them, is virtually monopolized by China, which makes no secret of its disdain for democratic values and harbors its own expansionist ambitions.

Today, eight of the ten of the world’s largest solar manufacturers are tied to China. The country controls the bulk of the world’s production of polysilicon, the semiconductor that forms the basis for the majority of the world’s solar panels. It also controls 99% of crystalline silicon wafer and 80% of crystalline silicon cell production. As a result, the United States has largely been reduced to relying on imports either directly from China or through Southeast Asian Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries where Chinese manufacturers have set up assembly plants to allegedly circumvent anti-dumping duties.

China’s dominance in solar manufacturing is no coincidence. Its solar companies have systematically dismantled international competition by dumping solar panels at cheap prices that are only possible because their manufacturers benefit from state subsidies and subsidized coal electricity in violation of World Trade Organization rules.

There are no altruistic motives in creating an artificial dependency on its solar industry. The Chinese government has essentially constructed yet another strategic vulnerability that it can exploit to its advantage. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted, Beijing is “…seeking to make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China.”

We are already seeing the consequences of America’s dependence on Chinese solar supply chains. As the U.S. Department of Commerce launched an inquiry into the possible circumvention of anti-dumping and countervailing duties by Chinese solar manufacturers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection prepares to enforce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, China appears to have retaliated by suppressing the supply of solar panels to the United States.

If that’s the case, the message in clear: If the U.S. government attempts to hold Chinese companies accountable to U.S. laws, the country’s energy transition will suffer. And if China has demonstrated that it can and will cut the United States off in response to a trade investigation and enforcement of human rights legislation, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to recognize the risks posed by a more serious conflict.

The need to counter China’s dominance of solar manufacturing with a durable industrial policy is now more urgent than ever. We already have the technology and innovation needed for the basis of that strategy and, given the right policies, can easily reach self-sufficiency well before the end of this decade.

However, America’s best hope at engineering energy autonomy and securing critical clean energy supply chains, the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act, rests with Congress. A continued delay in enacting this crucial piece of legislation, even as Chinese solar companies have been given free rein to continue dumping panels in the United States, could spell disaster for America’s solar manufacturing industry, which already lost a major player this year. It would also cripple any future efforts to rebuild decimated domestic capabilities and supply chains.

The bind that democracies find themselves in today is arguably the result of decades of consistently shortsighted decision-making and squandered opportunities to build self-reliance. Congress must ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes and act decisively. The time to do so is now.

Solar energy brings independence only if the supply of technology that converts photons into electrons is free from authoritarian influence and reflects the values and principles of the democratic nations that use it. Anything less is simply another form of dependence on authoritarian energy and places our nation’s interests at risk.

• Mark Widmar is the CEO of First Solar, the largest American solar manufacturer.

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