The U.S. Commerce Department on Wednesday announced duties on solar panels
imported from China, reaffirming a preliminary ruling earlier this year in
favor of domestic suppliers.
A coalition of U.S. solar panel manufacturers, including Helios Solar Works in Milwaukee, had sought the tariffs alleging that the Chinese manufacturers were flooding the U.S. market with panels that were being sold for less than they cost to produce -- a violation of fair-trade laws.
The tariffs range from 18.3% to 250%, depending on the company, for anti-dumping tariffs, and about 15% in addition for "anti-subsidy duties," according to The Associated Press.
The case was brought by SolarWorld, a German-based company that has a big factory in Oregon. Helios opened its factory in the Menomonee Valley early last year but was forced to scale back production and lay off workers when Chinese producers dropped their prices.
The trade dispute has ended up pitting Helios, SolarWorld and other domestic producers against solar panel installers that are expecting a bigger market for solar installations as prices drop.
The duties aim both to penalize the Chinese companies for selling the panels below their cost of production and to take further steps to offset Chinese government subsidies for the panels.
The domestic manufacturers said the influx of low-cost Chinese panels has led to the shutdown or scaling back of more than a dozen factories in the United States, including the closing of factories recently in New Mexico and Tennessee.
They said terms of the Commerce Department's ruling left the door open to more challenges for the domestic industry because a loophole could allow Chinese manufacturers to avoid the duties if they incorporate cells produced outside China in their panels.
Helios chief executive Steve Ostrenga said he was disappointed with the ruling and is hopeful that the company, which now employs 28 people, would be able to expand.
"We remain confident that American manufacturers can compete with China on an equal footing," Ostrenga said in a statement. "Helios . . . is in this battle to win it. Assuming an adequate response from the Obama administration on enforcement, we have some hope that there will continue to be a viable solar manufacturing base in the United States."
The decision comes as President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, have sparred over whether the administration has taken a tough enough stance in trade disputes with China.
Helios and SolarWorld are members of the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing. On the other side of the debate is the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, which includes companies like California-based SunEdison. That coalition argues the tariffs will drive up prices for homeowners who want to install solar panels.
Testifying in Washington last week, Ostrenga said his firm had to stop producing one kind of panel, lay off workers and shift to production of larger panels. Its customers include U.S. military bases.
"We do not want our fate to be like that of so many other U.S. producers that have been forced to idle facilities or cease U.S. production altogether as a result of Chinese imports," Ostrenga testified. "We believe American manufacturers certainly can compete with fairly traded solar cell and module imports."
The Commerce Department said earlier this year that solar imports from China totaled $3.1 billion, more than double the value of solar imports from the prior year, according to Bloomberg News.
"Commerce's announcement will likely raise already-high tensions between the U.S. and China over subsidies and trade in green goods," said Scott Lincicome, international trade attorney at White & Case, in a statement.
SunEdison and its supporters accuse SolarWorld, Helios and their allies of launching a trade war.
The affordable solar coalition released a statement from Jigar Shah, its president, saying, "We remain concerned about the growing global trade war, which will only hurt American solar industry jobs, growth and consumers."
Another manufacturer in the renewable-energy field, Broadwind, makes wind towers at its factory in Manitowoc.
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