(Adds analyst comments on market impact)
By David Lawder and Diane Bartz
WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Members of the U.S. International Trade Commission on Tuesday made three different recommendations for restricting solar cell and panel imports on Tuesday, giving President Donald Trump a range of choices to address injury to domestic producers.
The recommendations range from an immediate 35 percent tariff on all imported panels to a four-year quota system that allows the import of up to 8.9 gigawatts of solar cells and modules in the first year. The president's ultimate decision could have a major impact on the price of U.S. power generated by the sun.
Both supporters and critics of import curbs on solar products were disappointed by the proposals, which were unveiled at a public meeting in Washington.
Trade remedies were requested in a petition earlier this year by two small U.S. manufacturers that said they were unable to compete with cheap panels made overseas, mainly in Asia. The companies, Suniva Inc and the U.S. arm of Germany's SolarWorld AG, said Tuesday's recommendations did not go far enough to protect domestic producers.
"The ITC's remedy simply will not fix the problem the ITC itself identified," Suniva said in a statement. The company, which is majority owned by Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy, filed the rare Section 201 petition nine days after seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April. It had sought a minimum price on panels of 74 cents a watt, nearly double their current cost.
One analyst said the stiffest remedy recommended, a 35 percent tariff on solar panels, would add about 10 percent to the cost of a utility-scale project but would have a negligible impact on the price of residential systems because panels themselves make up a small portion of their overall cost.
"It's not nearly the doomsday impact we were potentially expecting," said Camron Barati, a solar analyst with market research firm IHS Markit Technology.
But the top U.S. solar trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a statement on Tuesday that any tariffs would be "intensely harmful" to the industry. The group has lobbied heavily against import restrictions on the grounds that they would undermine a 70 percent drop in the cost of solar since 2010 that has made the technology competitive with fossil fuels.
The ITC will deliver its report to Trump by Nov. 13. He will have broad leeway to come up with his own alternative or do nothing at all. Since only two members agreed on the same restrictions, there was no majority recommendation from the four-member commission.
"There is still plenty to be worried about," said MJ Shiao, who follows the U.S. solar market for GTM Research.
Trump has vowed to protect U.S. manufacturers from low-priced imports, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has talked about tariff-rate quotas as a flexible way to protect some industries, allowing imports in as needed, but only up to a certain level before high tariffs kick in.
Commissioners David Johanson and Irving Williamson urged the president to impose an immediate 30 percent tariff on completed solar modules, to be lowered in subsequent years, and a tariff-rate quota on solar cells. Imports of cells in excess of one gigawatt would be subject to a 30 percent tariff that would decline after the first year.
ITC Chair Rhonda Schmidtlein recommended an immediate 35 percent four-year tariff on imported solar modules, with a four-year tariff rate quota on solar cells. This would impose a 30 percent tariff on imports exceeding 0.5 gigawatts and 10 percent on imports below that level. These tariffs would decline over a four-year period.
In the most lenient recommendation, Commissioner Meredith Broadbent said the president should impose a four-year quota system that allows for imports of up to 8.9 gigawatts of solar cells and modules in the first year. (Additional reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Richard Chang and Dan Grebler)