WASHINGTON — A federal trade panel found China responsible Wednesday for harming the US solar panel industry, clearing the final hurdle for US attempts to impose steep tariffs on Chinese solar companies.
The US International Trade Commission voted unanimously that Chinese companies have materially injured US manufacturers, affirming its 2011 vote that launched a yearlong inquiry into low-cost Chinese products that US manufacturers blame for putting them on the brink of collapse.
Chinese companies that export billions of dollars of solar products to the United States each year will face tariffs of up to nearly 250 percent. The Obama administration imposed those tariffs in October after finding that China’s government is subsidizing companies that are flooding the US market with low-cost products. Wednesday’s vote means that those tariffs, along with antisubsidy fees, will stand.
The penalties will be good for five years. The US government will then reevaluate the tariffs .
‘‘With this relief, combined with an aggressive domestic enforcement regime, there is hope that the United States can maintain a viable solar manufacturing base,’’ said Gordon Brinser, president of Oregon-based SolarWorld Industries America Inc. and head of an alliance of American companies that implored the US government to take action.
More than $3.1 billion in Chinese solar panels and cells were imported by the United States in 2011, the Commerce Department has said. That number doubled from 2010, a year in which China’s government spent more than $30 billion to subsidize its solar industry, US energy officials said.
Already tense trade relations with China have been exacerbated by the sweeping trade case, one of the largest the United States has pursued against the Asian superpower. The complaint has also caused a rift at home between manufacturers, who say unfair Chinese subsidies make it impossible for them to compete, and solar panel installers, who stand to gain when their customers have access to low-cost products.
A group of companies, including China-based Suntech Power Holdings Co., fought the complaint, arguing that US companies are blaming China for their own failures — namely, poor business decisions such as failing to adapt their products to the needs of utility companies. The group’s president, Jigar Shah, said he was disappointed by the resolution of what he called a distracting and politically charged case.
‘‘Unilateral tariffs and a trade war in today’s interconnected global marketplace are unnecessary and detrimental to effective and efficient business competition,’’ Shah said.
Both sides had claimed that victory for their opponent would cost thousands of American jobs. In the end, neither side got everything it wanted.
Supporters of the penalties warned that their effectiveness could be blunted by a loophole that the Commerce Department, in an October decision setting the tariff levels, declined to close. That loophole, according to US manufacturers, allows Chinese companies that outsource a part of the production process to other countries to circumvent punitive tariffs.
The ITC declined to make the penalties retroactive.
An appeal is still possible to the US Court of International Trade in New York. China’s government could also potentially appeal the case to the World Trade Organization.