- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Commerce Department said Tuesday it is imposing new import duties on solar panels made in China because of what it said were unfair government subsidies, but stopped well short of recommending the steep penalties sought by U.S. competitors.

The department said it has found on a preliminary basis that Chinese solar-panel makers have received government subsidies of 2.9 percent to 4.73 percent.

Therefore, the department said, tariffs in the same proportions will be charged on Chinese panels imported into the U.S., depending on which company makes them.

The amounts are considered small, but the decision could ratchet up trade tensions between the U.S. and China.

Several U.S. solar-panel makers had asked the government to impose steep tariffs on Chinese imports. They are struggling against stiff competition from China as well as weakening demand in Europe and other key markets, just as President Obama is working to promote renewable energy.

“Today’s announcement affirms what U.S. manufacturers have long known: Chinese manufacturers have received unfair … subsidies,” Steve Ostrenga, CEO of Helios Solar Works in Milwaukee, Wis., said in a statement.

The company is a member of a group called the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing.

On the other side, some U.S. companies argue that low-priced Chinese imports have helped consumers and promote rapid growth of the industry.

The new tariffs are low, making the Commerce Department decision “a relatively positive outcome for the U.S. solar industry and its 100,000 employees,” said Jigar Shah, president of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE). “Fortunately, this decision will not significantly raise solar prices in the United States.”

Members of CASE include California-based SunEdison, Recurrent Energy, SolarCity and Westinghouse Solar, as well as China-based Suntech Power Holdings Co.

Commerce Department officials said they were putting off until May 17 a decision on whether Chinese companies are dumping the solar panels on world markets, selling them below cost.

The U.S. and China are two of the world’s biggest markets for solar, wind and other renewable-energy technologies. Both governments are promoting their own suppliers in hopes of generating higher-paid technology jobs.

China announced its own probe in November, saying it will investigate whether U.S. support for renewable-energy companies improperly hurts foreign suppliers.

The U.S. manufacturers’ complaints have been amplified by the controversy surrounding Solyndra Inc. a California-based solar-panel maker that filed for bankruptcy protection after winning a $500 million federal loan from the Obama administration.

Solyndra’s failure embarrassed the administration and prompted a lengthy review by congressional Republicans critical of Mr. Obama’s green energy policies. Solyndra has cited Chinese competition as a key reason for its failure.

Mr. Obama is visiting a big solar-energy plant Wednesday in Boulder City, Nev., part of a four-state swing aimed at showcasing his administration’s energy policies.