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China’s panda-shaped solar plant is part of a bigger challenge facing Trump

The panda-shaped solar plant in Datong, China, is seen from above. (VCG)

Pandas are round and roly-poly. Solar panels are angular. That did not stop a state-backed Chinese company from building a panda-shaped solar plant on a stretch of northern plain.

Panda Green Energy Group's Datong plant has a capacity of 50 megawatts and is connected to the state grid. Viewed from above, it looks like two pandas — if pandas were made of solar panels and dusty bits of road.

The company pitches the plant as a prototypical win-win: energy, plus what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls “positive energy,” which roughly means doing things that align with Communist Party goals.

Projects such as this one are the soft, cuddly face of China’s shift to solar. At a time when the United States is wavering on climate change, the Chinese government is investing in green energy on a giant scale.

Having the world’s biggest polluter nurture solar energy is, in many ways, a good thing. It has the potential to curb the smog that blights the region and, over the long term, slow the pace of climate change.

But some U.S. firms see China's embrace of solar as a threat to American business — and that presents a challenge to President Trump as he takes his "America First" agenda to China this week.

Voices within the U.S. solar sector have complained for years that China's support for its solar industry gives Chinese companies an unfair edge. In 2012, the United States slapped anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese-made panels.

Last week, officials at the U.S. International Trade Commission recommended new restrictions on solar-power equipment purchased from abroad, including tariffs of up to 35 percent.

The recommendation raises the question of whether Trump, who has railed against Chinese trade practices, will bring up the issue with his hosts. It also sets up one of the president’s first big choices on trade.

The case was backed by two U.S. solar producers who claimed they were forced into bankruptcy because of subsidized imports. Big buyers of solar panels vehemently opposed it, arguing that tariffs would lead to an untenable spike in prices.

“If [Trump] imposes tariffs, tens of thousands of U.S. jobs will be lost — jobs in blue-collar, middle-class America,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. “Imposing tariffs will not create a manufacturing renaissance in the U.S. It will raise prices and kill demand.”

Over the past 10 years, China has made renewable energy a priority, with various branches of government offering subsidies, loans or discounts on land, said Zhang Zhongxiang, an energy expert at Tianjin University.

In recent years, the state has tried to rein in subsidies to tackle overcapacity. But there is still support to be had, particularly for projects that align with the central government’s plans.

Panda Green’s main shareholder is China Merchants New Energy Group, a subsidiary of China Merchants Group, a powerful state-owned conglomerate.

In May, Panda Green signed an agreement with the Chinese government to promote construction projects as part of its “belt and road” program of infrastructure investments abroad.

The firm has said it plans to build 100 panda-shaped plants around the world, although it has given few details about when, where and how the projects will be undertaken.

The company also is working with the United Nations Development Program. The goal, according to the UNDP, is to "enhance engagement with the next generation of young leaders to take action on climate change."

At Panda Green, employees said they feel confident because the plant is running well — and because the state supports their mission.

Guo Bin, a 26-year-old engineer who lives at the facility, about 200 miles west of Beijing, predicted that the firm would prosper. "We are following in the country's steps," he said.

Asked about Panda Green’s prospects, representative Ou Lianwei referred to a speech Xi delivered on the importance of renewables.

Ou said Panda Green, which does not produce or export panels, would not be hit hard if Trump decides to implement tariffs.

But any comment or trade move from Trump could still shake up the sector, experts said.

“Protectionist trade moves will definitely have an impact,” said Gu Limin, a director at Jiangsu Akcome Industrial Group, a Chinese energy company. “There will be damage to the market and the industry.”

Shirley Feng in Datong and Beijing contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly quoted Abigail Ross Harper. She said “tens of thousands” of American jobs would be lost if tariffs were imposed, not “10,000.”

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