WASHINGTON - The Commerce Department is imposing new import fees on solar panels made in China, finding that the Chinese government is improperly giving subsidies to manufacturers of the panels there.
The Commerce Department said Tuesday it has found on a preliminary basis that Chinese solar panel makers have received government subsidies of 2.9 percent to 4.73 percent.
Therefore, the department said, tariffs in the same proportions will be charged on Chinese panels imported into the United States, depending on which company makes them.
The tariff amounts are considered small, but the decision could ratchet up trade tensions between the United States and China.
Several US solar panel makers had asked the government to impose steep tariffs on Chinese imports.
They are struggling against stiff competition from China as well as weakening demand in Europe and other key markets, just as President Obama is working to promote renewable energy.
“Today’s announcement affirms what US manufacturers have long known: Chinese manufacturers have received unfair . . . subsidies,’’ Steve Ostrenga, chief executive of Helios Solar Works in Milwaukee, said in a statement.
The company is a member of a group called the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing.
On the other side, some US companies argue that low-priced Chinese imports have helped consumers and promote rapid growth of the industry.
The new tariffs are low, making the Commerce Department decision “a relatively positive outcome for the US solar industry and its 100,000 employees,’’ said Jigar Shah, president of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy. “However, tariffs large or small will hurt American jobs and prolong our world’s reliance on fossil fuels. Fortunately, this decision will not significantly raise solar prices in the United States.’’
Members of the coalition include California-based SunEdison, Recurrent Energy, SolarCity, and Westinghouse Solar, as well as China-based Suntech Power Holdings Co.
Commerce said it was putting off until May 17 a decision on whether Chinese companies are dumping the solar panels on world markets, selling them below cost.
Also, because the decision on subsidy-related tariffs is preliminary, the amount of the tariffs could eventually be changed.
“Today’s decision by the Commerce Department is a signal that China’s unfair trade practices in the solar energy industry may soon be remedied, giving American producers a more level playing field on which to compete,’’ Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said following the announcement.