Editor’s Note: Our latest opinion column is courtesy of EarthTechling managing editor Pete Danko, taking a look at the solar industry’s infighting over issues with China.

It’s hard to see a winner emerging from the solar industry’s ongoing internecine slugfest – unless you count the public relations people. SolarWorld and its six unnamed co-petitioners, allied as the Coalition for Affordable Solar Manufacturing (CASM), say that without protective duties on Chinese solar modules and cells, U.S. manufacturing jobs will be lost. Installers and others in the solar supply chain, under the banner Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE), say duties could spell the end of the PV boom that has created tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.

And they say it over and over and over again, in news release after news release. Last week alone, CASE put out two releases (here and here) and CASM came back with three of its own (here, here and here). Which leads directly to the question: How much, if at all, does this sturm und drang matter? Last Friday, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) made a preliminary determination that there was a “reasonable indication” that the domestic industry was being “materially injured” or was “threatened with material injury” by Chinese imports. But that’s hardly the final word; an antidumping and countervailing duty petition is a tag-team bureaucratic process, and the Department of Commerce is next up with preliminary determinations in the first quarter of 2012, followed, potentially, by final determinations in the second quarter – and then it would be up to the ITC to vote on its own final determination.

solar industry slugfest

If it seems like there might be room in all this back and forth for politicking, well, there might be. And that’s what these news releases are all about.

Alan Sykes, a Stanford Law School professor who studies international trade, said in an interview that the public discussion of the SolarWorld complaint shouldn’t have any bearing on the six-person ITC panel’s decision. “But the ITC standards are so vague as to what is a material injury, there’s a lot of wiggle room for politics to possibly enter into the decision,” he said. Sykes said researchers have looked into what influence politics might have on ITC decisions, and while he wouldn’t call the work broadly definitive, “there are some studies where the evidence suggests it can make a difference” to have powerful Washington forces in your corner.

The ITC is, after all, a political body – overtly political. Go to the ITC site and in the first sentence of each commissioner’s bio you’ll discover the person’s political affiliation. That’s because the commission – appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to overlapping nine-year terms – can have no more than three members from one political party. Not surprisingly, the current composition is three Democrats and three Republicans. (And you thought George W. Bush appointed a Green.)

This would seem to ensure no party’s viewpoint can dominate, except that a 3-3 vote is considered affirmative, according to ITC Public Affairs Officer Peg O’Laughlin.

So here the solar manufacturers might have an edge. When SolarWorld and CASM announced their petition, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Subcommittee on International Trade, Customs, and Global Competitiveness, was there by their side. And last week, Wyden got five of his Senate Democratic colleagues, as well as 53 Democrats in the House, to pen a letter to President Barack Obama demanding the administration take a hard line on China for its alleged breaches of solar trade etiquette. (You can see the letter on the CASM website [PDF]. And, yes, the organization put out a news release saluting it.)

Speaking in general terms and not about this specific case, Sykes said, “Just because a commissioner is from a certain political party, that doesn’t mean they won’t look closely at the evidence and vote according to the law. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suspect that if there’s enormous political pressure being brought to bear – if committee chairman are writing letters or showing up at hearings and applying pressure – that it might have an influence.”

Unlike CASM, CASE and the petition opponents don’t appear to have lined up any Washington heavyweights – but you can be sure they’re working on it. That’s what the dueling news releases are all about. While CASM is struggling to hold onto its self-portrait as victim of Chinese cheating, CASE is working to chip away at that image. No doubt the organization is lobbying furiously in Washington, but the media/public campaign is important, too. Politicians tend to keep a finger to the winds; if they feel opinions shifting away from SolarWorld and CASM, they’re more likely to speak up against a trade war with China. That might not sway four ITC commissioners to vote thumbs down on duties, but it might convince the Obama administration to push for a negotiated settlement. As CASE point man Kevin Lapidus put it recently when asked what the organization hoped to achieve with its PR campaign: “I think it will change the media and the political discussion on this case and I think that’s where we can have an impact.”

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