WASHINGTON — A federal trade panel found China responsible Wednesday for harming the U.S. solar panel industry, clearing the final hurdle for U.S. attempts to impose steep tariffs on Chinese solar companies.
The U.S. International Trade Commission voted unanimously that Chinese companies have materially injured U.S. manufacturers, affirming its 2011 vote that launched a yearlong inquiry into low-cost Chinese products that some U.S manufacturers blame for putting them on the brink of collapse.
Chinese companies that export billions of dollars of solar products to the United States each year will face tariffs of up to nearly 250 percent. The Obama Administration imposed those tariffs in October after finding that China's government is subsidizing companies that are flooding the U.S. market with low-cost products — a tactic known as dumping. Wednesday's vote means that those tariffs, along with anti-subsidy fees of up to 16 percent, will stand.
The stiff penalties affirmed Wednesday will be good for five years. The U.S. government will then re-evaluate whether the tariffs are still necessary and at what levels.
More than $3.1 billion in Chinese solar panels and cells were imported by the United States in 2011, the Commerce Department has said. That number doubled from 2010, a year in which China's government spent more than $30 billion to subsidize its solar industry, U.S. energy officials said.
Already tense trade relations with China have been exacerbated by the sweeping trade case, one of the largest the United States has pursued against the Asian superpower.
The complaint has also caused a rift at home between manufacturers, who say unfair Chinese subsidies make it impossible for them to compete, and solar panel installers, who stand to gain when their customers have access to low-cost products.
A group of companies, including China-based Suntech Power Holdings Co., fought the complaint, arguing that U.S. companies are blaming China for their own failures — namely, poor business decisions such as failing to adapt their products to the needs of utility companies.
Both sides had claimed that victory for their opponent would cost thousands of American jobs.
Supporters of the penalties warned that their effectiveness could be blunted by a loophole that the Commerce Department, in an October decision setting the exact tariff levels, declined to close. That loophole, according to U.S. manufacturers, allows Chinese companies that outsource a part of the production process to other countries to circumvent punitive tariffs.
In another silver lining for the tariff's opponents, the ITC declined to make a finding of “critical circumstances,” which would have made the penalties retroactive. An appeal to the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York is still possible. China’s government could also potentially appeal the case to the World Trade Organization.
China’s government has bristled at the complaint, noting that the United States long has pushed China to adopt green energy as a way to reduce pollution and that China has launched its own disputes with both the United States and the European Union over solar product subsidies.
Scrutiny of the U.S. solar industry has been magnified by Republican indignation over Solyndra Inc., a California solar panel maker that won a half-billion-dollar loan from the Obama Administration and then went bankrupt.
Solyndra is not involved in the trade case, but it cited Chinese competition as a prime reason it flopped.