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JinkoSolar vows to fight Hanwha patent claim that threatens US solar imports

SNL Image

A technician installs a solar panel on a roof in Puerto Rico.
Source: Associated Press

JinkoSolar Holding Co. Ltd. CEO Kangping Chen denied an allegation that the Chinese manufacturer has been shipping solar equipment to the U.S. that contains a competitor's patented technology. Chen said the case, which could disrupt the U.S. solar market, lacks "technical or legal merit."

On March 4, Hanwha Q Cells USA Inc. and Hanwha Q Cells & Advanced Materials Corp. asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to block imports of solar cells and panels from JinkoSolar, LONGi Green Energy Technology Co. Ltd. and REC Solar Holdings AS that allegedly include a patented structure of solar cells. Some fear that if the Hanwha companies are successful, there will be a shortage of solar panels at a time when developers are racing to build projects before a key U.S. tax incentive is phased out.

"We fully respect intellectual property rights and encourage healthy competition, but we will take legal action to defend ourselves from accusations of wrongdoing," Chen said on a March 22 earnings call. "We are now working closely with our legal counsel and technical advisers to … defend against the claim, and we are confident in the position we are developing."

Norway-based REC Solar in a news release said it is investigating the allegation and will "take all necessary steps to rigorously defend itself, its customers and its partners."

LONGi, based in China, could not be reached for comment March 22. The company previously said "the current technology used in LONGi's products is not the same as the technology contained in the disputed patents," according to Solar Power World, a trade publication.

The Hanwha complaint has sparked a new trade fight in the U.S. solar industry following the battle that raged in the months before President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on imported solar cells and panels last year.

After a sluggish 2018, the U.S. solar market was expected to enjoy several years of growth, with companies hustling to take advantage of the federal investment tax credit at the same time that Trump's tariffs are being unwound.

However, rising demand for solar power in other markets could leave panel-makers struggling to supply a construction surge in the U.S., Xiaohua "Shawn" Qu, chairman, president and CEO of Canadian Solar Inc., said on a March 21 earnings call. Philip Shen, a managing director and senior research analyst at ROTH Capital Partners, on March 22 said there is already a shortage of high-efficiency panels in the U.S.

Further constraining panel supplies by restricting imports from JinkoSolar, LONGi and REC Solar could jeopardize billions of dollars of U.S. projects, according to developers.

"Invenergy currently has in excess of 1.5 billion dollars in solar projects under contract that are slated for completion before the end of 2021. To say that the complaint filed by Hanwha is a troubling risk to our contracted project pipeline is an understatement," Art Fletcher, senior vice president of renewable engineering and project management at Invenergy LLC, wrote in a March 19 letter to David Johanson, chairman of the International Trade Commission.

"There simply isn't idle capacity that can be quickly ramped up to backfill the loss of supply" from JinkoSolar, LONGi and REC Solar, Fletcher said.

NextEra Energy Inc., which signed a big contract with JinkoSolar in 2018, said it has been planning to invest "several billion dollars" in solar projects that "rely on the availability of solar cells that are subject to Hanwha's requested exclusion and cease-and-desist orders."

NextEra asked the International Trade Commission to decline to even investigate Hanwha's allegations, citing potential harm to the U.S. solar industry and the broader economy.

The Hanwha companies say they have made a "significant investment" to commercialize the patented solar cells in the U.S., including building a factory in Georgia.

Hanwha Q Cells USA is based in Georgia. Hanwha Q Cells & Advanced Materials Corp. is based in South Korea.