By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A coalition that says it represents 97 percent of the U.S. solar industry urged solar panel maker SolarWorld on Thursday to withdraw a petition asking President Barack Obama's administration to slap punitive duties on China for unfair trading practices.
"The severe tariffs SolarWorld seeks would have a very damaging effect on the solar industry in the United States and would fundamentally undermine many years of effort by all of us who care about the future of solar power," the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE) said in a letter to SolarWorld President Gordon Brinser.
"In simple dollar terms, your petition threatens the planned installation of solar electric power systems in the amount of $11 billion in 2012 and the potential installation of $60 billion currently in the total pipeline," the group said in the letter signed by CASE President Jigar Shah.
Shah, who founded the solar services company SunEdison, argued that a 40 percent drop in solar panel prices between 2006 and 2011 has helped spur an eight-fold increase in demand for solar energy over the same period.
"By asking government to interfere and artificially increase the price (equivalent to putting on a high tax) will only hinder the deployment, cost thousands of jobs, reduce our energy security and further negatively impact an already shaky economy," Shah said in the letter.
Brinser, in an emailed statement, dismissed the letter "as inappropriate bluster from Jigar Shah, who speaks on behalf of the Chinese manufacturers. Mr. Shah and these Chinese manufactures are well aware that their illegal trade practices are harming the U.S. economy and causing thousands of good manufacturing jobs to be lost."
CASE said its 145 member companies employ over 14,000 solar professionals across every major region and in more than two dozen states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.
In a separate interview, Kevin Lapidus, a senior vice president at SunEdison, said CASE was also beginning an effort to persuade the Obama administration the best way to resolve the case was through a negotiated solution with China.
He drew a comparison with a dispute between the United States and Canada over softwood lumber. In that case, U.S. industry also alleged unfair trade practices and the two governments eventually negotiated a deal to govern trade in the sector.
SolarWorld is the U.S. arm of SolarWorld AG, one of Germany's largest solar products manufacturer. It accuses its Chinese competitors of receiving illegal government subsidies and selling in the United States at unfairly low prices.
Along with six other U.S. solar energy companies who have chosen to remain anonymous, SolarWorld filed a case in October asking the U.S. Commerce Department to set duties of more than 100 percent on Chinese-made solar cells and panels.
Brinser said his coalition was supported by more than 150 associate members from 14 states employing over 11,000 workers.
The U.S. International Trade Commission voted 6-0 this month to allow the case to proceed and for the Commerce Department to announce preliminary duties early next year.
It would be extraordinary for SolarWorld to withdraw its petition having cleared that early hurdle.
But CASE, which includes many companies that install solar panels and have benefited from a 40-percent drop in prices over the past five years, argued it would be in the best interest of the overall U.S. solar industry for SolarWorld to do that.
"CASE's membership is representative of 97-98 percent of America's solar industry, as the large majority of all U.S. solar industry jobs are downstream of solar panel manufacturing in project development, logistics, construction and installation," the group said.
The coalition also warned that imposing duties on solar products from China could ignite a trade war.
(Editing by Xavier Briand and Christopher Wilson)