To Protect U.S. Solar Industry, Trade Body Recommends Tariffs and Import Restrictions

Suniva called the International Trade Commission’s recommendations “disappointing” in a statement, saying they were not strict enough. It called on Mr. Trump to implement more stringent restrictions “necessary to save American manufacturing.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group that has fought any tariffs or barriers to imports, said in a statement Tuesday that the commissioners had taken a thoughtful approach and did not recommend “anything close to what the petitioners asked for.” But it emphasized that proposed tariffs would be intensely harmful to the industry.

The case is unique because it relies on a rarely used section of federal trade law, known as Section 201 or a “global safeguard investigation,” which gives the president broad authority to impose tariffs or other restrictions to help protect a domestic industry.

The prospect of such restrictions has triggered a fierce backlash from industries and users of solar power, who argue that such measures would raise prices throughout the supply chain and ultimately cost more American jobs than they would save. They argue that cheaper solar products from China have actually been a boon to their businesses and accelerated the adoption of solar energy in the United States, where it now powers millions of American homes and businesses.

Workers who install solar power projects, utilities who purchase the power and major commercial users of solar power, like retailers, could all be damaged by such restrictions, said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the Energy Trade Action Coalition, which represents those groups.

“You can play with the numbers and tweak things, but the bottom line is it’s going to put those groups at risk,” Mr. Maisano said.

The case will also be a test of the president’s willingness to impose the kind of powerful trade barriers that he has frequently threatened. Mr. Trump repeatedly talked on the campaign trail about imposing sweeping tariffs on products from China, Mexico and elsewhere, a tough stance that spurred political support among Americans frustrated with the economy.

But since Mr. Trump came into office, powerful business lobbies have pushed back on that tough approach, arguing that tariffs benefit a narrow slice of industry at the expense of other companies and consumers of those products, who have to pay higher costs. Other proposed trade policies involving tariffs, including measures on imported steel and aluminum, appear to have stalled under such pressure.

The recommendations announced by the four members of the International Trade Commission ranged significantly in the impact they would have on the industry.

The most moderate proposal, made by commissioner Meredith M. Broadbent, would restrict imports of cells, modules and other photovoltaic products to 8.9 gigawatts in the first year — a level she said was consistent with the level of imports in 2016. That level would increase by 1.4 gigawatts each subsequent year, effectively preventing a surge in imports, but not significantly altering the current market.

Ms. Broadbent also recommended auctioning licenses to import these products, and reinvesting the resulting funds in the domestic solar industry.

The other three commissioners made far more stringent recommendations. David S. Johanson, vice chairman of the International Trade Commission, and Irving A. Williamson, a commissioner, jointly recommended a 30 percent tariff on imports of solar cells in excess of 1 gigawatt, as well as a 30 percent tariff on modules. Each penalty would be gradually lowered in the next few years.

Rhonda K. Schmidtlein, the commission’s chair, recommended a tariff of 10 percent on the first 0.5 gigawatts of cells imported, and a 30 percent tariff on cells exceeding that volume. She also recommended a 35 percent tariff on modules. The barriers would be gradually reduced over the next four years.

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