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U.S. launches probe into China solar panels

November 10, 2011|Reuters

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Commerce Department said it would investigate whether Chinese companies sell solar panels in the United States at unfair discounts and receive illegal government subsidies.

The trade spat, one of several sensitive economic and trade issues between the United States and China, could lead to steep duties on imports of Chinese panels and help struggling domestic manufacturers.

The action is opposed by companies in the U.S. solar industry that count on importing cheap panels to boost solar power generation.

It comes as the administration of President Obama faces criticism from Republicans in Congress about domestic aid to solar and other renewable energy companies.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that it had accepted a petition from SolarWorld Industries Americas Inc. Last month, the company asked the U.S. government to slap duties on Chinese solar cells and modules.

SolarWorld is the U.S. arm of SolarWorld AG, one of Germany's largest solar product manufacturers, which shut down a California plant earlier this year because of a steep drop in solar panel prices.

"The anti-competitive tactics of Chinese exporters have threatened to wipe out U.S. producers and jobs," said Gordon Brinser, president of the U.S. unit, based in Oregon.

The effect of the case is already being felt. This week, China's largest solar power plant developer put plans for California, New Jersey and Texas on hold because of concerns that duties could make the plan too expensive.

The solar coalition wants additional countervailing duties to offset Chinese government subsidies including tax breaks, cheap raw materials, discounted land, power and water, preferential loans and export insurance, and export assistance grants.

The U.S. International Trade Commission, which has the final say on whether any duties are imposed, will examine the issue and vote Dec. 5 on whether there is enough evidence of injury to U.S. companies for the case to proceed.

The Commerce Department would then make its preliminary decisions on duties in January and March.

Imports of solar panels from China rose to $1.5 billion in 2010 from $640 million in 2009, the department said.

A coalition of 25 U.S. solar companies opposes the trade case, saying it will threaten 100,000 jobs in the U.S. industry.

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