WASHINGTON — A federal trade panel voted Friday to investigate whether Chinese companies are harming the U.S. solar panel industry by dumping low-price products on global markets.
U.S. companies’ complaints about their Chinese rivals have been amplified by the controversy surrounding Solyndra Inc., a California-based solar panel maker that went bankrupt after winning a half-billion-dollar federal loan from the Obama administration.
American companies have asked the government to impose steep tariffs on Chinese solar imports, and the unanimous vote by the International Trade Commission means the case will continue.
The solar panel manufacturers have been struggling against stiff competition from China and weakening demand in Europe and other key markets, just as President Obama is working to promote renewable energy.
The commission’s vote does not impose any penalties but says there is reason to believe that Chinese imports harm or threaten to harm the U.S. solar panel industry. The companies that filed the complaint said the ruling affirmed their claims that massive subsidies by the Chinese government are enabling Chinese producers to drive out U.S. competition.
SolarWorld Industries America Inc., the largest U.S. maker of silicon solar cells and panels and a subsidiary of Germany-based SolarWorld, is leading the U.S. complaint.
The trade dispute has caused a split in the solar industry. Some U.S. companies argue that low-priced Chinese imports have helped consumers and promote rapid growth of the industry.
To counter the trade petition, a group of solar companies have formed the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy. Members include California-based SunEdison, Recurrent Energy, SolarCity and Westinghouse Solar, as well as China-based Suntech Power Holdings Co.
“Every day that this trade dispute continues, more American jobs are threatened,” said Jigar Shah, the founder of SunEdison and a leader of the group opposing the trade complaint. The vast majority of the 100,000 jobs in the solar industry are in sales, marketing, design, installation and maintenance, Shah said, with only small percentage in manufacturing.
“These jobs depend on affordably priced solar panels, and companies would have to lay off workers if panel prices rose as a result of this petition,” he said.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy declined to comment Friday.