Federal board moves toward penalties on solar panel imports

Federal board moves toward penalties on solar panel imports
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The United States International Trade Commission (ITC) took a major step Friday toward slapping tariffs or other penalties on companies that import solar panel technology.

The independent body unanimously accepted a petition from bankrupt solar manufacturers Suniva and SolarWorld that argued competition from imports, mainly from China, are hurting their businesses.

The commissioners will soon recommend specific penalties, such as tariffs or price floors on crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells, the component of solar panels that generates electricity.

President Trump has the sole authority to implement such penalties under a process spelled out in Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974. He has prioritized trade policies that protect domestic manufacturing and often criticizes China’s role in international trade, giving Suniva and SolarWorld hope that he would implement protections.

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Under the 201 provision, the commission did not have to conclude that foreign companies or countries were doing anything unfair or illegal, only that the domestic industry has been injured.

The ITC is due to issue recommendations in the case by Nov. 13, setting up a final decision on tariffs from Trump sometime after.

In a statement following the commission’s vote, White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom said Trump “will examine the facts and make a determination that reflects the best interests of the United States.”

She added that the domestic solar manufacturing industry “contributes to our energy security and economic prosperity.”

Trump has taken an aggressive posture on trade, especially targeting imports of products from China. That raises the likelihood he will embrace tariffs on imported solar panels.

But the White House will be subject to an aggressive lobbying push before Trump makes a decision on tariffs.

Suniva and SolarWorld’s push for relief from imports has divided the solar industry and its allies.

The ruling is a major win for the two domestic manufacturers, who say that the protections could revitalize the domestic solar industry and create more than 100,000 jobs after years of booming growth that have largely left United States builders behind in favor of imports.

The manufacturing sector has backed the companies, arguing penalties on foreign imports will help boost American manufacturers as solar power continues to grow as a source of electricity.

But Friday’s decision is a big loss for most of the rest of the solar industry, including companies that sell, rent and install panels. Cheap parts from China has helped drive tenfold growth in that business over recent years.

The Solar Energy Industry Association opposes the petition and said it would threaten 88,000 jobs. Numerous conservative organizations and business groups have joined the cause against the trade penalties.

The American Council on Renewable Energy immediately promised Friday to push the White House to reject a tariff on solar panel imports, warning it could lead to higher prices and slower growth for one of the booming segments of the electricity sector.

The issue has pit lawmakers against each other, as well.

House members representing districts with solar panel manufacturing facilities sided with Suniva and SolarWorld as the ITC was taking up the case. But a bipartisan group of senators in states with growing solar power capacity came out against tariffs over the summer, warning they threaten to limit the sector’s expansion.

Updated at 12:50 p.m.