The US will levy import fees on certain types of Chinese solar panels, saying Beijing is illegally subsidizing its domestic solar-energy industry in a manner that could be harming American solar companies, the Department of Commerce said Tuesday.
The US International Trade Administration, a branch of Commerce, said it determined that certain Chinese solar companies are receiving unlawful government subsidies ranging from 2.9% to 4.73%.
While ITC's findings are preliminary, the agency nevertheless said it would instruct US Customs officials to collect cash deposits or bonds on all applicable Chinese solar panels that entered the US within the last 90 days.
ITC is also conducting a separate but related investigation into whether Chinese solar-energy companies are "dumping" their products in the US market at below-cost rates. The agency said it would make its initial determination in that case next month.
The Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, a coalition of seven US solar-energy companies that filed the trade complaint against the Chinese solar industry last year, hailed ITC's move Tuesday.
"Today's announcement affirms what US manufacturers have long known: Chinese manufacturers have received unfair and … illegal subsidies," said Steve Ostrenga, the CEO of Wisconsin-based Helios Solar Works, one of the coalition's seven members.
The duties that ITC announced Tuesday apply only to certain Chinese-made polysilicon solar cells and panels — not thin-film PV panels or other types of solar equipment.
The duties are also smaller than many experts had anticipated, given the allegations of massive Chinese subsidies that the US companies leveled in the trade complaint they filed last year. That complaint claimed that China's national and local governments have illegally subsidized the country's solar industry to the tune of more than $40 billion per year, including cash grants, loan guarantees, lower-cost inputs, discounted export insurance and other types of aid. That aid has allowed Chinese solar companies to dominate the American market, according to Helios Solar Works and the other US companies that filed the complaint.
China's domination of the US solar-energy market has been a problem for the Obama administration's efforts to build a domestic clean-energy industry. Since last summer, the administration has been under fire from Republicans for giving a $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, a California solar manufacturer that declared bankruptcy. In its court filings, Solyndra said it could not compete with lower-cost, Chinese-made solar panels, among other things.
Carlo Santoro of MX Solar USA, one of the seven US solar companies that filed the trade complaint, said American solar companies can compete with China as long as there is a level playing field.
"If we address unfair trade practices in the US solar market, we can get back to our business of expanding American manufacturing and jobs in the renewable energy sector," said Santoro, MX Solar's director of business development.
But not all segments of the US solar industry hailed the ITC's decision to impose duties on Chinese solar panels. The Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, a group of US and Chinese firms, has previously warned that the imposition of duties could cause the price of PV panels to jump by more than 25%, hurting the US industry. Jigar Shah, the coalition's president, expressed relief Tuesday that the duties will not be as steep as many observers had anticipated.
"However, tariffs large or small will hurt American jobs and prolong our world's reliance on fossil fuels," Shah said.
The Chinese solar companies named in the dispute — including Suntech, Trina Solar and Yingli — have denied the allegations against them. Helena Kimball, Yingli Solar's head of marketing, has previously vowed to "mount a vigorous defense" against the charges.