U.S. Government Launches Probe Into Cheap Imported Solar Cells

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. government opened an investigation into whether American solar-panel manufacturers are being hobbled by cheap imports, marking the first step in a probe that may lead to import tariffs on photovoltaic components.

The U.S. International Trade Commission is instituting the probe at the request of Suniva Inc., a bankrupt Georgia-based manufacturer that said it was unable to compete with low-cost solar cells made predominately in China. Officials will conclude by Sept. 22 whether the company had suffered damages, the ITC said in a notice Tuesday.

“We are pleased that the Commission has taken this next step and initiated the investigation of this case,” Matt Card, a Suniva executive, said in a statement.

Suniva requested import duties of 40 cents per watt for solar cells produced outside the U.S. and a floor price of 78 cents per watt for panels. The International Trade Commission will do the initial analysis of the complaint; the final decision on whether to back Suniva rests with President Donald Trump.

The case, filed by Suniva in April, has rattled the solar industry. The duties Suniva is requesting are forecast to double the price of panels and may imperil 260,000 jobs, according the Solar Energy Industries Association. Suniva’s majority owner, Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd. of China, has also objected, saying the move is “not in the best interests” of clean energy markets.

“The International Trade Commission’s decision to consider Suniva’s petition for a lifeline could be bad news for hundreds of thousands of American workers in the solar industry and may jeopardize billions of dollars in investment in communities across the country,” SEIA chief executive Abigail Ross Hopper said in a statement. Tariffs and floor prices are “a blunt instrument that would cripple one of the brightest spots in America’s economy.”

Solar installations in the U.S. have soared in recent years, largely because of low-cost panels made in China. Suniva’s largest creditor, SQN Capital Management, required the manufacturer file the trade case as a condition of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy financing.

The ITC said it would take longer than normal to investigate the case, saying it was “extraordinarily complicated.” The agency plans to send a report with its recommendations to the president by Nov. 13.