UPDATE 1-Solar executives wary of trade complaint vs China

Thu Oct 20, 2011 3:43pm EDT

* 7 U.S. solar companies want duties on imports from China

* Many US, European companies supply China or buy from it

* Some companies fear getting shut out of China market

By Matt Daily and Nichola Groom

DALLAS, Oct 20 (Reuters) - A trade complaint filed by a group of solar companies against China drew skeptical reviews from inside the industry, with many fearing a trade war could disrupt growth.

On Wednesday, seven U.S. solar manufacturers asked the Obama administration to impose duties of more than 100 percent on China imports, which they said were unfairly undercutting U.S. prices and destroying American jobs.

But many U.S. and European companies supply China's industry with products used to make solar cells, while others end up buying those finished cells to put in their own solar modules.

"It's a really difficult issue for everyone," said Tom Hecht, head of U.S. sales for Germany's Schott Solar . "Any trade war is damaging to the industry."

Fear of triggering retaliation by the Chinese government or angering the Chinese companies appeared to be the reason that six of the companies that filed the complaint chose to remain anonymous, several industry experts said.

Only SolarWorld Industries, the U.S. arm of Germany's SolarWorld AG , made its name public.

China's solar industry has grown rapidly over the past five years, led by companies such as Suntech Power Holdings , Yingli Green Energy and Trina Solar -- all of which have shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Analysts and executives have blamed the rising output of panels from China for pushing some U.S. companies into bankruptcy this year. A glut of solar panels has helped drive down prices by about 40 percent so far this year, shrinking margins for nearly all manufacturers.

Kevin Kilkelly, SolarWorld's U.S. president, said the Chinese companies had flooded the United States with panels at cut-rate prices simply to win market share.

"In July alone, (China's U.S. shipments) far outweighed those from all of 2010 combined," he told Reuters. "So we said we have to take action."

GLOBALIZED BUSINESS

China's Suntech, the world's largest maker of solar panels, responded to the filing by saying it was well prepared to demonstrate its strict adherence to fair international trade practices.

Many executives from the United States and Europe have privately complained for years about China's impact on the solar markets, but most have also said the business had become so globalized that penalizing one country would not help companies that are struggling to survive.

Still others seem wary of triggering a trade war that could lead to foreign companies being shut out of China, which has become one of the world's fastest-growing renewable energy centers.

First Solar , the largest U.S. solar company and the industry's lowest-cost manufacturer, has signed agreements that could result in it building huge solar power plants in China, although it has done only modest pilot projects there so far.

"What we believe in is free and open market access here and everywhere else in the world," First Solar Chief Executive Rob Gillette told reporters at the Solar Power International trade show in Dallas this week.

Trade relations with China have become a hot issue ahead of the 2012 U.S. presidential and congressional elections. Last week the Senate passed a bill aimed at Beijing's currency practices, but the proposal faces an uphill battle in the House of Representatives.

Others at the Dallas show said the trade complaint gave the industry a black eye, something many found unwelcome following the bankruptcy of Solyndra, which collapsed after receiving more than $500 million in government loans.

"The outside world looking at renewables as a whole says: 'Well, this is just proof that solar is not a business yet -- let's just ignore it for another five years,'" said Julian Hawkins, head of sales and marketing for U.S. manufacturer Abound Solar.

"I'm not really sure at times that people go through all the repercussions."

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