Photovoltaic solar energy tariffs put Sino-U.S. trade under destructive risks

The decision will not only harm the interests of both sides in the photovoltaic (PV) industry, but also harm the U.S. clean energy industry and jeopardize bilateral cooperation in new energy, according to a post on the official website of the Ministry of Commerce (MOC) on Thursday, which cited senior officials from the Bureau of Fair Trade for Imports and Exports under the MOC.

"China urges the U.S. to consider the bigger picture of long-term bilateral cooperation and prudently handle trade frictions," the post said.

The MOC’s reaction came after the U.S. Department of Commerce on Tuesday announced the results of a preliminary investigation into Chinese solar panel makers, finding that the companies have received government subsidies of 2.9 to 4.73 percent. The department subsequently decided to levy tariffs of equal size on imports of Chinese solar panels.

As a result, Suntech Power Holdings Co., Ltd. and Trina Solar Limited, two prominent solar panel producers in China, will face countervailing duties (CVD) of 2.9 percent and 4.73 percent respectively.

"Unilateral trade barriers, large or small, will further delay our transition away from fossil fuels at a time when the majority of Americans demand cleaner and more secure energy," said Andrew Beebe, Suntech’s chief commercial officer.

The U.S. government’s tariffs are lower than the previously expected 10 percent, which gave a boost to both companies’ stocks during Tuesday’s trading.

Suntech’s share price rose 14.06 percent and closed at 3.57 U.S. dollars per share, while that of Trina Solar increased 7.85 percent to close at 8.38 U.S. dollars on the New York Stock Exchange.

Another investigation into whether Chinese companies are dumping solar panels below cost will be conducted and the results will be announced by the U.S. Department of Commerce in mid-May.

The preliminary investigation is "just the beginning" and such rulings will have a bearing on the whole industry, said Mark Kingsley, chief commercial officer of Trina Solar.

Chinese manufacturers described the ruling as protectionism.

"The CVD tariff was imposed with the goal of protecting their (U.S.) domestic companies. Trade protectionism has become the biggest challenge for China’s PV industry," said Miao Liansheng, chairman of the board of Yingli Green Energy, an integrated photovoltaic manufacturer headquartered in Baoding, China.

China is a large importer of polysilicon, an important material in the PV industry, with annual imports up from 17,000 tonnes in 2008 to 64,700 tonnes in 2011, of which 60 percent came from the United States and the Republic of Korea.

If Chinese companies are burdened with tariffs, it is possible that polysilicon producers in the United States. will feel a pinch as well, leading to opposition to the tariffs by some U.S. companies.

The Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE) has consistently opposed tariffs on the Chinese PV industry on the grounds that they will cost 50,000 jobs in the United States over the next three years.

A ripple effect may hit the European Union as well, as a considerable amount of high-end equipment used in the global PV industry is imported from the European Union.

Despite the ruling, Chinese PV companies said they will continue to play an active role in the U.S. market.

"We will continue to fight for affordable solar energy and further growth for the tens of thousands of U.S. jobs that we help to create," said Robert Petrina, managing director of Yingli Green Energy Americas, Inc. "Regardless of the outcome, we remain dedicated to the U.S. solar market."

"As a global company with global supply chains and manufacturing facilities in three countries, we are well prepared for the future. Regardless of whether tariffs are imposed on solar cells from China, we can provide our customers in the U.S. with high-quality and affordable solar products that are not subject to tariffs," said Beebe.

The trade frictions are a testament to the complexity of Sino-U.S. disputes and reflect the urgent need for deeper economic and trade relations, said Zhang Erzhen, a professor and head of the International Economics Research Institute at Nanjing University.

The dispute started in October 2011, when SolarWorld, a U.S. branch of a German manufacturer, and six other companies complained to the U.S. Department of Commerce that their Chinese competitors have been deeply subsidized. A subsequent investigation began in November 2011.