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Washington has long ensured that American taxpayers subsidize solar power as much or more than any energy source. Now the political class wants consumers to pay even more in the form of tariffs on imports of Chinese solar cells. And we thought the Obama Administration liked green energy.

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Brenda Jacobs, partner at Sidley Austin, on the Obama administration’s antidumping duties on Chinese solar panels. Photo: Getty Images

On Thursday, the Commerce Department levied antidumping duties of more than 31% against 61 Chinese companies, and nearly 250% on some smaller players. This is one of the largest antidumping punishments against China. The decision follows Commerce’s preliminary imposition of countervailing duties between 2.9% and 4.73% on Chinese solar-cell imports in March. A final determination will be made later this year, though Commerce will start asking companies to post bond or cash deposits immediately.

The only winners here are Germany-based SolarWorld AG and the six other companies that filed for trade relief. SolarWorld is a high-cost producer that has struggled as European countries have slashed their solar-industry subsidies, thanks to soaring costs and fiscal pressure. Like steel makers and others that resort to dumping laws, SolarWorld is using government to raise costs for its competitors.

The losers will be American consumers and solar-panel installers. A Brattle Group study for the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, a lobby group, estimated in January a 50% tariff would “shut the vast majority of Chinese imports out of the U.S. market,” resulting in higher prices and tens of thousands of lost jobs. If China retaliates with tariffs of its own, as it’s done in other bilateral trade disputes, U.S. exporters that supply China’s solar industry could suffer significant job losses.

Associated Press

A solar panel factory in China’s Jiangsu Province.

The U.S. is allowed to impose antidumping duties under World Trade Organization rules, but Commerce has significant leeway in how it determines the level of harm. In this case it used a method that allowed much higher tariffs than usual. The U.S. considers China a nonmarket economy and thus for years has used India as a proxy to determine Chinese export prices. This time Commerce used Thailand, a far more developed country with a small solar industry and spottier data, as the proxy.

China is an easy political target these days, and both parties are guilty of exploiting it. Antidumping rulings are supposedly made by career bureaucrats free of political influence, but you can bet they know which way the wind blows. President Obama has set the tone by establishing his special Trade Enforcement Unit, and GOP candidate Mitt Romney isn’t much better with his get-tough-on-China rhetoric.

The implicit assumption is that if China abuses its taxpayers by subsidizing its solar industry, the U.S. should do the same to Americans. This ignores that foreign subsidies help U.S. consumers through lower prices. The tariffs will make solar power even less competitive against other energy sources, creating a demand for even more U.S. subsidies and delaying the renewable power future that Mr. Obama and his green allies so fervently claim to want.