The vote clears the way for additional steps by the commission and the Commerce Department that could result in heavy tariffs on Chinese imports. The Commerce Department had responded to the industry filing last month by agreeing to open an investigation into the complaints.
In theory, some tariffs could begin in January. But a decision could be delayed, experts said.
Chinese officials, angered by the trade complaint, have already vowed to investigate American subsidies to renewable energy. And some American importers of solar panels, and operators of solar power installations, have warned that sanctions against the Chinese could raise the cost of solar energy in the United States.
But Ben Santarris, a spokesman for SolarWorld, of Hillsboro, Ore., the lead company in the complaint, noted Friday that the six members of the International Trade Commission had three options in voting: that there was no harm, that there was a threat of harm or that there was actual harm. Because all six commissioners found actual harm, he said, it was “the highest possible outcome we could get in this admittedly incremental milestone.”
Many steps remain in the case.
For the industry’s complaint to succeed, the Commerce Department will next have to make a preliminary ruling that Chinese panel makers have been “dumping” their products in the United States at prices below the cost of making and marketing them.
The preliminary ruling would impose offsetting tariffs, which the department has initially estimated at 50 to 250 percent, to bring the price of Chinese panels in the American market up to what the Commerce Department deems their fair market value.
The Commerce Department will also assess whether the Chinese solar panels have been subsidized, although this review takes two months longer. The subsidy review could lead to additional tariffs of 100 percent or more if the Commerce Department found in favor of the domestic industry.
A spokesman said on Friday that either or both could be delayed. The department could, though, order importers of the Chinese products to put up cash or bonds in anticipation of a final ruling.
In Friday’s action, the International Trade Commission said it had found a “reasonable indication that a U.S. industry is materially injured” by the import of solar panels from China “that are allegedly subsidized and sold in the United States at less than fair value.”
The slumping price of solar equipment was a factor cited by the Energy Department in assessing the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the solar module manufacturer that the Obama administration provided with a $535 million loan guarantee.
The New York Times