June 19, 2024

China Bends to U.S. Complaint on Solar Panels, but Weighs Retaliation

HONG KONG — Chinese solar panel makers plan to shift some of their production to South Korea, Taiwan and the United States in hopes of defusing a trade case pending against them in Washington, according to industry executives.

But at the same time, the Chinese industry is considering retaliating by filing a trade case of its own with China’s Commerce Ministry.

The most likely target would be American exports to China of polysilicon — a prime ingredient in solar panels — Chinese industry executives and officials said on Monday. American manufacturers exported about $873 million of polysilicon to China last year, nearly as much in dollar terms as the value of the solar panels that China shipped to the United States.

The Chinese moves come after the United States Commerce Department opened a trade case against China’s solar panel makers earlier this month, at the request of SolarWorld Industries America and six other American solar companies.

The Commerce Department said it was considering punitive tariffs of 50 to 250 percent on Chinese solar panels, based on preliminary evidence that China was “dumping” solar panels in the United States below the cost of making and marketing them. The department is also investigating whether the Chinese government is breaking international trade rules by subsidizing the export of solar panels — if such a finding was made, it could result in additional tariffs.

Having hired trade lawyers to advise them on the Commerce Department case, Chinese solar panel manufacturers are increasingly gloomy about their chances of winning it, said Ocean Yuan, the president of Grape Solar, a big importer of Chinese solar panels that is based in Eugene, Ore.

Mr. Yuan said that Grape Solar was already negotiating with several Chinese manufacturers, whom he declined to identify, to perform final assembly of solar modules in Oregon. That would be the last step in new supply chains the Chinese industry intends to set up that would start in China then run through South Korea and Taiwan in hopes of avoid any new tariffs.

But because final assembly of solar panels is relatively low-tech manual labor, any Chinese expansion into Oregon would be unlikely to add many valuable American jobs.

Currently, the only Chinese solar panel assembly site in the United States is near Phoenix and owned by Suntech Power. That plant has a capacity equal to about 3 percent of the American market for solar panels.

Even before the filing of the trade case, Suntech had begun preparations to increase output at that operation, planning to add a work shift and double the size of the factory. But that will expand the current work force to 260, from 110 now. And even then, its capacity would serve only a small fraction of the American market. By contrast, companies based in China supplied more than 40 percent of the American market for installed panels in the third quarter of this year, according to GTM Research, a renewable energy consulting firm based in Boston.

Meanwhile, the Chinese solar panel industry is seeking legal advice on filing its own antidumping and antisubsidy trade case against the United States, industry executives in Beijing said Monday.

The most likely target would be American exports of polysilicon, the main material used in making conventional solar panels, said Wang Shijiang, a manager at the China Photovoltaic Industry Alliance based in Beijing.

The manufacture of polysilicon requires enormous amounts of energy — so much electricity that it typically takes the first year of operation of the panel to generate as much power as was required to make the polysilicon in it. The process requires superheating large volumes of material in electric-arc furnaces, including the melting of quartzite rock at more than 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

The United States is one of the world’s largest producers of polysilicon, in states like Tennessee and Washington, because it has access to a lot of inexpensive hydroelectric power. And most of that polysilicon is exported.

China’s own polysilicon industry is controversial because it relies heavily on electricity generated by coal-fired power plants, and because weak environmental controls at Chinese polysilicon factories have resulted in toxic spills that have fouled streams and rivers.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/business/global/china-bends-to-us-complaint-on-solar-panels-but-also-plans-retaliation.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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