U.S. solar manufacturers today asked the Obama administration to slap duties of more than 100 percent on imports from China that they said were unfairly undercutting U.S. prices and destroying American jobs.
"Let us be clear, China has a plan for our market--to gut it and own it," said Gordon Brinser, president of SolarWorld Industries Americas at a news conference.
Trade relations with China have become a hot issue ahead of the 2012 U.S. presidential and congressional elections. The Senate last week passed a bill aimed at Beijing's currency practices, although the bill faces an uphill battle in the House of Representatives to become law.
Next week, the House Ways and Means Committee plans a hearing to dive into a broad array of Chinese trade actions that are causing concern in the United States.
The U.S. solar industry has been hit hard by competition from China and other countries.
A coalition of seven companies led by SolarWorld Industries accused China of a long list of illegal subsidies and pricing practices to grab global market share.
Some trade experts have warned that the Obama administration needs to tread carefully since the United States also has programs to support the sector.
Last month, U.S. solar panel maker Solyndra filed for bankruptcy, burdened with $783 million in secured debt and squeezed by falling prices caused by an industry glut.
Its downfall has become a political embarrassment for the Obama administration, which had promoted the company as an example of how it planned to spur development in clean-energy technology and provided a government guarantee on a $535 million loan Solyndra has said it may not repay in full.
The United States was a net exporter of solar energy products last year, due to strong demand from China, Germany, and Japan for U.S.-made polysilicon and capital equipment used to make solar panels.
U.S. photovoltaic-related exports totaled $5.6 billion in 2010, compared with imports of $3.7 billion, according to a study by GTM Research prepared for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a U.S. trade group not involved in the case announced today.
The same report showed the United States was a net importer of the modules that transform sunlight into electricity. It imported $2.4 billion of the product, including $1.4 billion from China and $480 million from Mexico.
U.S. exports of the photovoltaic modules totaled $1.2 billion in 2010, or half the level of imports.
SolarWorld is the U.S. arm of Germany's SolarWorld, which is one of Germany's largest solar products producers and has sought to expand into the growing U.S. market.
Last month, SolarWorld shut its Camarillo, Calif., production plant due to the steep drop in solar panel prices.
SolarWorld and other German solar companies have faced increasing competition in their home market in recent years as Chinese companies entered and drove down panel prices.
"In area after area, the Chinese do not play by the rules," said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who last month urged President Barack Obama to use U.S. trade law to restrict solar panel imports from China.
While industries such as steel have relied heavily on U.S. anti-dumping and countervailing duties to restrict foreign competition, the solar case appeared to be the first time the renewable energy sector has turned to U.S. trade remedy laws.
The Obama administration did successfully challenge a number of Chinese subsidies to support its wind power producers in a World Trade Organization case initiated by the United Steelworkers union.