Suntech Power Holdings Co., Ltd. (USOTC:STPFQ)
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The U.S. solar-power industry has been nervously awaiting a federal decision on whether to impose antidumping tariffs on Chinese solar-panel makers.
The Department of Commerce is scheduled to issue a decision Thursday on the tariffs as part of an investigation into accusations that Chinese solar-panel makers receive unfair government subsidies and sell their products in the U.S. at prices below the cost of production.
In a related decision in March, the department slapped tariffs of between 3% and 5% on imported Chinese solar panels and found that Chinese solar manufacturers enjoyed some unfair government financial assistance that helped them become an export powerhouse.
The U.S. unit of Germany-based SolarWorld and six other U.S. firms brought the complaint to the Commerce Department last year and filed a similar complaint with the International Trade Commission, which has been conducting a separate investigation.
The trade case has caused acrimony in the solar-power industry, which has grown quickly over the last few years. At the same time, sliding prices amid a glut of manufacturing capacity, particularly in China, have driven manufacturers' profits and stock prices deeply lower. The market turmoil has forced several solar-panel makers out of business, including Solyndra LLC, which had received more than $500 million in federal assistance.
Chinese solar-panel makers such as Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. (STP) Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. Ltd. (YGE) and Trina Solar Ltd. (TSL) have denied the accusations. Many of their customers have come to their aid, arguing that low solar-panel prices are good for consumers. They also warn that the investigations could trigger a trade war.
China's Ministry of Commerce has criticized the U.S. investigations, causing U.S. firms who sell into the Chinese solar market to worry that Beijing will retaliate with tariffs on U.S. products.
Dow Corning and Hemlock Semiconductor, in which Dow owns a majority stake, supply Chinese customers with polysilicon and other raw materials for solar products, and they oppose the trade case.
The case "could undermine the solar industry's significant progress at the very moment it is poised for success," Dow Corning Chief Executive Robert Hansen said in a statement. "We are concerned about serious unintended consequences such as local job loss and retaliatory tariffs against the U.S."
But SolarWorld argues that the U.S. solar market needs a strong domestic manufacturing industry to create jobs and protect against an over-reliance on foreign suppliers.
"Anyone whose business model is built on dumped and subsidized Chinese imports has a problem, because dumping is a violation of U.S. trade law and [World Trade Organization] rules," SolarWorld attorney Timothy Brightbill said in an interview.
Chinese solar-panel makers have gained market share quickly.
Chinese firms supplied 46% of global shipments of solar cells and panels in 2011, or more than 10,800 megawatts, while U.S. suppliers shipped about 3%, or about 780 megawatts, according to research by Paula Mints, an analyst at Navigant Consulting.
The same year, U.S. developers installed 1,855 megawatts of solar panels, more than double the amount installed the previous year, according to a March report by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
While many U.S. solar industry participants are neutral on the trade case, most agree that it has divided the industry and frayed nerves.
"Now is not the time to be beating each other up," Mints said. "It's a time to draw together and remember who [the solar industry] is competing against: primarily conventional energy and other renewables."
-By Cassandra Sweet, Dow Jones Newswires; 415-439-6468; firstname.lastname@example.org