Bankrupt U.S. solar company seeks new tariffs on cheap imports

(Reuters) - Bankrupt U.S. solar panel maker Suniva on Wednesday asked federal trade officials to recommend new duties on imported solar products to combat a global oversupply of panels that has depressed prices and made American producers unable to compete.

Solar panels are seen on the roof of a car park in Mountain View, California, U.S. on April 7, 2016. REUTERS/Noah Berger/File Photo

The company, which was founded in Georgia but sold a majority stake to Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy 1165.HK in 2015, filed a rare Section 201 petition with the U.S. International Trade Commission nine days after seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The petition is the latest trade dispute to plague the U.S. solar industry.

The U.S. arm of Germany's Solarworld AG SWVKk.DE succeeded twice since 2012 in convincing the U.S. to set duties on solar products from China and Taiwan, albeit through a different federal process.

Because of those duties, manufacturers have shifted production of solar panels destined for the U.S. market to other countries in Asia. Suniva’s petition would apply to solar cells and modules manufactured in any nation.

If successful, the petition could drive up the price of U.S. solar systems, harming project developers and installers.

The U.S. solar trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, said it opposed the petition.

“One of the things that’s tough is how much uncertainty there is in this process,” said MJ Shiao, director of research at research firm GTM Research. “You don’t know necessarily what the price is going to be.”

Worldwide, solar panel manufacturers are grappling with a more than 30 percent drop in prices since early 2016.

Suniva’s debtor-in-possession financing from SQN was contingent in part on filing the Section 201 petition.

Under Section 201, Suniva must convince the ITC that the U.S. industry has suffered “serious injury” because of imports. If it does, then the Commission could recommend relief measures to the president such as tariffs or volume limitations.

President Trump would make a final decision on whether to provide relief and, if so, what type. Final approval from the president is a key difference in the Section 201 process compared with prior solar trade cases.

Suniva is seeking a duty rate of 40 cents per watt on solar cells and a floor price on modules of 78 cents a watt for the first year, levels unseen since 2012 on imported Chinese modules, according to GTM Research.

“Without today’s requested global safeguard, the U.S. solar manufacturing industry will die,” Suniva Executive Vice President of Commercial Operations Matt Card said in a statement.

Reporting by Nichola Groom