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 U.S. manufacturers blame for putting them on the brink of collapse.
Chinese companies that export billions of dollars of solar products to the U.S. 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 antisubsidy 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.
"With this relief, combined with an aggressive domestic enforcement regime, there is hope that the United States can maintain a viable solar manufacturing base," said Gordon Brinser, president of Oregon-based SolarWorld Industries America and head of an alliance of American companies that implored the U.S. government to take action.
More than $3.1 billion in Chinese solar panels and cells were imported by the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
An appeal is still possible to the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York.