Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2014 New York Times News Service

A major maker of solar panels opened another chapter in a long-simmering trade dispute Tuesday, asking the U.S. Commerce Department to impose new duties on imported modules made of certain components from China or Taiwan.

The petition, brought by SolarWorld Industries America, is intended to close a loophole in the U.S. decision to impose taxes on imported Chinese modules.

Should the petition go forward, it could effectively block Chinese manufacturers from the U.S. market, said Shayle Kann, vice president of research at GTM Research, which tracks clean-tech industries.

In 2012, the U.S. issued final rulings that Chinese solar companies had received unfair subsidies from their government and dumped products on the U.S. market below costs. But the duties, roughly 24 to 36 percent, applied only to panels made from Chinese solar cells, the final major parts that are assembled into finished modules.

As a result, many Chinese companies were able to avoid the duties by assembling panels from cells produced elsewhere, especially in Taiwan, even if those cells were derived from components — called ingots and wafers — from China. Should SolarWorld win the case, modules made from Taiwanese cells or cells made from Chinese ingots or wafers would be subject to taxes as well.

“We’re finishing the job of presenting the facts to our trade regulators to prevent China from further damaging yet another manufacturing industry and another rich base of employment,” Mukesh Dulani, president of SolarWorld Industries America, said in a statement. “China obviously recognizes the key importance of solar technology manufacturing to future economic competitiveness. But we do, too.”

Under federal regulations, the Commerce Department is required to consider the petition, and is to determine whether to investigate by the middle of January.

China is continuing to pursue imposing duties on U.S. polysilicon, the base compound for conventional solar panels; the country negotiated a settlement with the European Union over similar trade complaints in July.

SolarWorld, the U.S. subsidiary of a German company, has found support for its case among some solar employers in the United States, where many manufacturers have been squeezed to the brink of bankruptcy and beyond by fierce competition from China. But the main industry trade group expressed disappointment with the new petition and called for renewed negotiations.

“Trade litigation is a blunt instrument and, alone, incapable of resolving the complex competitiveness issues that exist between the U.S. and Chinese solar industries,” Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, said in a statement.

Robert Petrina, managing director of Yingli Green Energy Americas, a division of a leading Chinese manufacturer, said in an email message that the company would “fight this just as vigorously as we did the first case.”

In Europe, Kann of GTM Research said, negotiations resulted in a set price floor and volume quota for Chinese panels, “so it’s possible you could end up with something similar here.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to an email seeking comment.