Portland — SolarWorld, the manufacturer with a solar-panel plant in Hillsboro, Ore., cleared a significant hurdle Friday in its bid for more tariffs on Chinese and Taiwanese products imported to the United States.
The U.S. International Trade Commission declared in a unanimous preliminary determination that imports of Chinese panels made with Taiwanese solar cells injure the domestic manufacturing industry.
SolarWorld Industries America Inc., a subsidiary of Germany's SolarWorld, filed the case Dec. 31, accusing China of illegal subsidies and both China and Taiwan of dumping products in the United States at unfairly low prices. The company asked the U.S. government to close a loophole that enables Chinese companies to evade tariffs by making their panels with solar cells manufactured in Taiwan.
"Step by step, U.S. solar producers are returning to a day when they no longer are forced to compete with the government of China," said Mukesh Dulani, president of SolarWorld Industries America. The company employs more than 600 in Hillsboro making solar cells and panels.
The Chinese government did not immediately respond to the U.S. commission's decision Friday. In January, Beijing retaliated against U.S. tariffs by imposing duties on imports of U.S. polysilicon, the raw material used to make wafers for solar cells.
In an interview, SolarWorld's Dulani said tariffs, if imposed, could enable SolarWorld to increase its workforce again in Hillsboro, where its plant once employed more than 1,000. "We again could get above 1,000," he said, "and we are working very hard to get there."
Dulani said tariffs would create an even playing field, enhancing the ability of SolarWorld and other U.S. manufacturers to innovate. SolarWorld is working in both Hillsboro and Germany, for example, to invent lower-cost crystals that go into wafers for making solar cells.
"With innovation, prices will keep dropping like they were before all this dominance by China," Dulani said. Without the duties, he said, "more companies are closing and that will destroy long-term innovation for the world."
But Jigar Shah, president of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, a group of solar-panel installers and other U.S. companies, said that if federal officials impose additional tariffs, panel prices will rise and Americans will lose jobs as purchases decline.
"It is now official," Shah said in a news release. "A German company is one step closer to manipulating U.S. trade procedure in order to prop up its own failing business and inflict harm on a job-creating industry."
"By raising the cost of solar for American homeowners," Shah said, "SolarWorld is poised to inflict critical damage on an industry which last year added more than 20,000 solar installation, sales and distribution jobs to the U.S. economy."
To bring its trade case, SolarWorld had to demonstrate it had the support of a majority of the U.S. solar manufacturing industry. The company is backed by the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, made up of nearly 250 businesses.
SolarWorld won tariffs in previous trade cases against China, but the loophole regarding Taiwan remained.
The trade case next moves to the U.S. Commerce Department, which is expected in late March to make a preliminary determination on anti-subsidy duties for Chinese products. Then in June, the Commerce Department is scheduled to make a preliminary determination on anti-dumping duties for China and Taiwan.
If Commerce imposes the preliminary duties, the U.S. International Trade Commission could act about a year from now to make the tariffs final.