Looming shutdown sparks worries about CHIPS funding rollout

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More than a year after President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act into law, the Commerce Department is pushing to get billions of dollars in semiconductor manufacturing and research incentives out the door.

But the government is set to run out of money. 17, and a potential shutdown — which could slow down the program’s funding rollout — is not out of the question.

The Commerce Department’s CHIPS Program Office, which is responsible for doling out roughly $50 billion in commercial incentives and research and development (R&D) grants, would stay open during a government shutdown.

But it would “absolutely have a detrimental impact on our process,” a Commerce official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, told The Hill.

“It would cause a lot of challenges for us, and it would certainly impede our ability to move as fast as we want to,” the official said.

Semiconductor race takes on new urgency

Semiconductors are a vital component of everyday items, from electronic devices to transportation to military technologies.

The United States accounted for 12 percent of the world’s semiconductor manufacturing in 2020, down from 37 percent in 1990, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association’s most recent analysis,

In the race to develop the smallest, most powerful chips, the US currently produces zero percent of leading-edge chips that are critical to national security.

Taiwan and South Korea are the dominant producers of the world’s leading-edge chips, raising concerns about how a potential conflict with China over Taiwan would impact supply chains.

Global demand for semiconductors has also continued to grow: McKinsey & Company estimates Semiconductors could become a trillion-dollar industry by the end of the decade.

The CHIPS — which is short for the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors — and Science Act aims to mitigate that risk to US supply chains and increase capacity to produce high-demand chips.

“The state of the industry is one that we’re relying on Taiwan and South Korea primarily for the critical materials that are in everything we own,” Brandt Anderson, a senior policy advisor at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, told The Hill.

Before making the move to Brownstein in May, Anderson was a national security advisor for Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), working closely with the senator as he helped craft the CHIPS and Science Act. Young introduced earlier versions of the bill, the Endless Frontier Act, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“There’s a level of urgency in figuring this out. We don’t know what the future holds,” Anderson added, pointing to pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions and the potential conflict in the Pacific.

Funding to start flowing by the end of the year

The CHIPS Program Office is working with $39 billion for commercial incentives and $11 billion in R&D funding.

The office has issued two funding opportunity notices so far this year.

In February, the CHIPS Program Office opened calls for pre-applications and applications for commercial fabrication leading-edge, current-generation and mature-node semiconductors facilities with $300 million or more in capital investment.

It expanded that in June to include large-scale semiconductor materials and manufacturing equipment.

At the end of September, the office issued an additional funding opportunity for small-scale supply chain projects of less than $300 million in capital investment.

“When our team is making a decision about where the funds are going to go, they first and foremost look through the lens of national and economic security,” the Commerce official said, adding commercial viability and a workforce plan are also critical components.

The first tranche of awards is expected to roll out by the end of this year.

Opportunities for a slice of the $11 billion in R&D funding have yet to be announced, but Commerce expects to release an additional funding opportunity notice later this year.

There’s been a huge amount of interest in the upcoming awards.

“We’ve received more than 530 statements of interests seeking CHIPS incentives to build projects across 42 states and have received over 120 pre and full applications,” the Commerce official said, emphasizing that the program cannot replace private capital.

Since President Biden took office, companies have announced more than $231 billion in semiconductor industry investments, the Commerce official noted.

Around $166 billion of that has been announced since the CHIPS and Science Act was signed into law last August.

The goal of the legislation was to incentivize companies to invest in manufacturing in the US, something Anderson observed many companies are eager to do anyway.

“This thing lived and died many times, and we heard from a lot of companies that were saying, ‘Our customers are still asking for us to be in the United States. We are going to come. We are still moving forward. We would love for the CHIPS Act to be law, but we’re going to come regardless,’” Anderson said.

Navigating challenges as priorities compete

In addition to the looming specter of a government shutdown, the program office has to juggle competing priorities with a limited amount of funding.

“The key challenge moving forward is to ensure CHIPS incentives get out the door in a timely manner and reinvigorate US chip production and innovation without being spread too thin. Striking the right balance will be critical to making the most of limited CHIPS dollars,” Dan Rosso, senior director of communications at the Semiconductor Industry Association, told The Hill.

Companies are also watching to see what kind of strings may be attached to awards, including outstanding questions regarding the government’s right to intellectual property developed using CHIPS funds.

“We’ll be watching what kind of terms and conditions the Department of Commerce proposes to these different companies that come along with the money,” Angela Styles, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, told The Hill.

“We would not make them do anything that is against their commercial interests,” the Commerce official said.

Akin Gump Senior Counsel Josh Teitelbaum, who works closely with companies in the semiconductor supply chain that are seeking CHIPS and Science Act funding, is watching the award amounts as they roll out.

“Whether they’re higher or lower will be an indication of how much funding is left in the pot to distribute to the other projects,” Teitelbaum said. “If the awards are perhaps larger than expected, other companies may get nervous about what is left as we get closer to the smaller supply chains or the R&D funding.”

Industry sources are nervous about investment

Industry representatives also told The Hill they’re worried the program may not sufficiently invest in all aspects of the supply chain, including workforce development and integrated chip manufacturing processes.

“You could also think about it as your brain in your body; the rest of your nervous system, your skeletal system, that’s what the rest of the ecosystem amounts to,” Dr. John Mitchell, president and CEO of the global electronics manufacturing industry association IPC, told The Hill.

“If you consider it just a chip act instead of a systems act, it will fail,” he added. “It’s a good step, but it’s literally just the first step.”

Such an ask may fall outside the scope of the current funding.

“It’s important to note that we are not trying to bring the entire semiconductor industry to the United States,” the Commercial official said, adding, “We want to bring some of those manufacturing jobs back here.”

But a big part of bringing those jobs back includes training people to take them on, which could be a challenge.

In a July reportthe Semiconductor Industry Association estimated that roughly 67,000 — 58 percent — of the 115,000 projected new jobs in the semiconductor industry by 2030 could go unfilled.

The Commerce official noted that each applicant is required to include a workforce plan to build the next generation of workers, but they acknowledged the risk.

“If we don’t continue to work on these creative solutions and getting more people in the workforce and getting those people trained in the workforce, then there is going to be a shortage of semiconductor workers. And that’s something that we’re very focused on here,” he said.

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