Intelligent Energy

U.S. places tariffs on Chinese solar panel makers

Posting in Design

The U.S. Commerce Department has imposed lower-than-expected tariffs on Chinese solar manufacturers. But the issue is far from over.

The U.S. Commerce Department imposed preliminary tariffs -- albeit smaller than some had anticipated -- on silicon solar cells and panels imported from China after determining the Chinese government provided unfair subsidies that allowed manufacturers there to undercut foreign rivals.

Tariffs between 2.9 percent and 4.73 percent will be charged on Chinese panels imported into the United States. A 2.9 percent duty will be imposed on Suntech's crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells imported from China. Trina Solar will be hit with a 4.73 percent tariff and the remaining Chinese solar manufacturers will be charged a 3.59 percent duty.

It's not clear how the tariffs will impact the manufacturers, if at all. As one Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst noted, Chinese-sourced modules are 10 percent cheaper than similar products made elsewhere.

The decision could prompt Chinese manufacturers to shift some of their operations outside of the country. For example, Suntech has manufacturing facilities in three countries, including a U.S.-based factory in Arizona. The company said in response to today's decision that it could provide its customers in the U.S. with "hundreds of megawatts" of affordable solar products that are not subject to tariffs.

A little history

The Commerce Department initiated last November its anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigation of imports of solar cells from China. Panel manufacturer SolarWorld was the primary petitioner for the investigations.

While other manufacturers joined the SolarWorld-led group, not everyone in the wide-ranging industry supported the move. The Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE), which includes installers, financiers and designers, immediately countered SoalrWorld's request, arguing that global competition is making solar energy more affordable.

CASE president Jigar Shah, who also founded SunEdison and the Carbon War Room, tried to take a it-could-have-been-worse tone in response to the Commerce Department's decision. Shah said in a statement released today that the low tariffs were a relatively positive outcome. However, he noted:

Tariffs large or small will hurt American jobs and prolong our world’s reliance on fossil fuels. Fortunately, this decision will not significantly raise solar prices in the United States as SolarWorld has sought.

The solar tariff isn't entirely resolved. The decision is only preliminary. For now, U.S. Customs will collect the tariffs while the investigation continues. If the government reverses its decision once the investigation is over, that money will be returned. The commerce department will announce anti-dumping duties in May.

Photo: Suntech

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure