Four officials from the U.S. International Trade Commission announced a range of recommendations aimed at protecting domestic makers of solar equipment from unfairly priced imports, especially from China.
Trade officials recommended Tuesday that the United States impose restrictions on solar-power equipment purchased from abroad, including tariffs, setting the stage for President Donald Trump to make a decision that would have significant ramifications for the U.S. solar industry, its workers and its customers.
Four officials from the U.S. International Trade Commission, an independent federal agency that governs trade, announced a range of recommendations Tuesday aimed at protecting domestic makers of solar equipment from unfairly priced imports, especially from China. Those included limiting the imports of certain solar components and imposing tariffs of 10 percent to 35 percent on certain products.
Those recommendations will be sent to the president by Nov. 13; he will have 60 days to accept or reject these ideas as he determines the ultimate course of action.
The decision comes as Trump is preparing to travel to China next week to meet with Chinese officials on a range of security and trade issues. Solar may be just one of many industries under discussion, including oil and gas, automobiles and finance.
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Two companies, Georgia-based Suniva and Oregon-based SolarWorld, brought a solar case to the trade commission earlier this year, contending that a flood of subsidized imports from China — photovoltaic cells and modules that are ultimately made into solar panels — pushed them to the brink of extinction. Suniva has declared bankruptcy, while SolarWorld had to lay off three-quarters of its workforce.
Suniva called the International Trade Commission’s recommendations “disappointing” in a statement, saying they were not strict enough. It called on Trump to implement more stringent restrictions “necessary to save American manufacturing.”
The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group that has fought any tariffs or barriers to imports, said in a statement Tuesday that the commissioners had taken a thoughtful approach and did not recommend “anything close to what the petitioners asked for.” But it emphasized that proposed tariffs would be intensely harmful to the industry.
The case is unique because it relies on a rarely used section of federal trade law, known as Section 201 or a “global safeguard investigation,” which gives the president broad authority to impose tariffs or other restrictions to help protect a domestic industry.
The prospect of such restrictions has triggered a fierce backlash from industries and users of solar power, who argue that such measures would raise prices throughout the supply chain and ultimately cost more U.S. jobs than they would save. They argue that cheaper solar products from China have actually been a boon to their businesses and accelerated the adoption of solar energy in the United States, where it now powers millions of U.S. homes and businesses.
Workers who install solar-power projects, utilities who purchase the power and major commercial users of solar power, like retailers, could all be damaged by such restrictions, said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the Energy Trade Action Coalition, which represents those groups.
“You can play with the numbers and tweak things, but the bottom line is it’s going to put those groups at risk,” Maisano said.
The case will also be a test of the president’s willingness to impose the kind of powerful trade barriers that he has frequently threatened. Trump repeatedly talked on the campaign trail about imposing sweeping tariffs on products from China, Mexico and elsewhere, a tough stance that spurred political support among Americans frustrated with the economy.
But since Trump came into office, powerful business lobbies have pushed back on that tough approach, arguing that tariffs benefit a narrow slice of industry at the expense of other companies and consumers of those products, who have to pay higher costs. Other proposed trade policies involving tariffs, including measures on imported steel and aluminum, appear to have stalled under such pressure.