* Commerce to announce decision on final duty levels on Tuesday
* Renewable energy production tax credit expires Dec. 31
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Dec 13 (Reuters) - U.S. wind tower manufacturers, already facing the expiration of a tax credit that has pumped up demand for wind energy projects, on Thursday pleaded for a U.S. government panel to approve steep duties on imports from China and Vietnam.
"The American wind tower industry has been devastated by Chinese and Vietnamese trade practices," Kerry Cole, president of Trinity Structural Towers, the largest remaining U.S. producer of utility scale wind towers, told the U.S. International Trade Commission.
The hearing came just before a final Commerce Department determination on Tuesday of whether Chinese and Vietnamese wind tower manufacturers are unfairly undercutting U.S. prices.
Earlier this year, the department said Chinese towers were being sold at 20.85 percent to 72.69 percent below fair market value and Vietnamese towers at discounts of 52.67 to 59.91 percent.
Preliminary anti-dumping duties could rise or fall next week, but the ITC has to find U.S. producers have been materially injured, or threatened with material injury, by the imports for duties to take effect. That decision is expected by late January.
Cole and Paul Smith, president of Broadwind Towers, told the panel the past five years have been brutal for the U.S. wind tower industry as they lost market share to imports from China and Vietnam.
"Five major U.S. producers, two of whom were petitioners in this investigation, have shut down tower operations and left the industry. Others have been forced to curtail production, shutter facilities and lay off workers, all as the result of the surge of dumped and subsidized imports," Cole said.
Both Trinity and Broadwind manufacture the tall steel towers uses to support the large turbines that generate electricity from wind. Their customers include turbine manufacturers such as GE and Siemens.
U.S. tower producers were particularly upset when GE went with Chinese suppliers for the 338-tower Shepherds Flat project in eastern Oregon, which is expected to be completed next year and is billed as the world's largest wind farm.
GE did not testify at Thursday's hearing, but an attorney representing Siemens said duties were unwarranted because domestic producers had not produced any evidence of under-selling by Chinese or Vietnamese competitors.
Instead, "the record is full of petitioners' confessions of turning down orders because they did not have the capacity to deliver. So their loss of market share was due to their inability to produce more, not foreign imports," said Elliot Feldman, an attorney at Baker & Hostetler.
Meanwhile, a renewable energy tax credit that has fueled demand for wind energy projects is set to expire on Dec. 31, without a last-minute extension from Congress.
The American Wind Energy Association, whose members include both GE and Siemens, is pressing Congress to allow Congress to continue the credit for projects that start in 2013.
But opponents, such as the American Energy Alliance, argue that would be a waste of taxpayer funds at a time when the government is trying to cut costs.
The wind tower producers at the hearing said they expect demand for new towers to be weak in 2013 even if the tax credit is renewed.
That makes it critical that duties are imposed on imports from China and Vietnam, they said.