WASHINGTON — The U.S. Commerce Department has imposed new import fees on solar panels made in China, finding that the Chinese government is improperly giving subsidies to manufacturers of the panels.
The department said Tuesday it has preliminarily found that Chinese solar panel makers have received government subsidies of 2.9 percent to 4.7 percent. Therefore, the department said tariffs in the same proportions will be charged on Chinese panels imported into the U.S., depending on which company makes them.
U.S. energy officials say China spent more than $30 billion last year subsidizing its solar industry.
The tariff amounts are considered small, but the decision could raise trade tensions between the U.S. and China. Several U.S. solar panel makers had asked the government to impose steep tariffs on Chinese imports, which they struggle against as demand weakens in Europe and other markets.
"Today's announcement affirms what U.S. manufacturers have long known: Chinese manufacturers have received unfair … subsidies," said Steve Ostrenga, CEO of Helios Solar Works in Milwaukee. The company is a member of a group called the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing.
On the other side, some U.S. companies argue that low-priced Chinese imports have helped consumers and promote rapid growth of the industry.
The new tariffs are low, making the Commerce Department decision "a relatively positive outcome for the U.S. solar industry and its 100,000 employees," said Jigar Shah, president of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy. "However, tariffs large or small will hurt American jobs and prolong our world's reliance on fossil fuels. Fortunately, this decision will not significantly raise solar prices in the United States."
Members of the coalition include California-based SunEdison, Recurrent Energy, SolarCity and Westinghouse Solar, as well as China-based Suntech Power Holdings Co.
The U.S. manufacturers' complaints have been amplified by controversy surrounding Solyndra, a California-based solar panel maker that filed for bankruptcy after winning a $500 million loan from the Obama administration.
Solyndra's failure prompted a lengthy review by congressional Republicans critical of Obama's green energy policies. Solyndra has cited Chinese competition as a key reason for its failure.