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U.S. solar manufacturers appeal to Trump team for stiff tariffs

Dec 6 (Reuters) - Struggling U.S. solar panel makers on Wednesday made a final plea to President Donald Trump's key trade policy advisers to support steep tariffs on foreign-made solar products, ahead of his imminent decision in a closely watched trade case.

Suniva and SolarWorld, which say an influx of cheap solar panel imports from China have made them unable to compete, appealed to the Trade Policy Staff Committee to recommend stiffer measures than proposed by members of the bipartisan International Trade Commission (ITC) in October.

"Strong remedies are exactly what are required," Suniva Executive Vice President Matt Card told the committee at a hearing in Washington. "Unfortunately, right now, China is on the verge of winning their planned economic, energy and national security strategy for utterly destroying the U.S. solar manufacturing industry."

Trump's decision, expected early next year, could have a major impact on the price of U.S. power generated by the sun. While panel makers want less foreign competition, installation companies rely on low-priced imports to compete with fossil fuels and have argued against tariffs.

Bankrupt Suniva, which is majority owned by Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd, requested trade remedies in a rare Section 201 petition to the ITC earlier this year. The U.S. arm of Germany's SolarWorld AG joined the petition shortly after.

The Section 201 process is unusual because the president, rather than trade officials, makes the final decision.

The ITC's four-member panel made three different recommendations for restricting solar cell and panel imports, giving Trump a range of choices. The Trade Policy Staff Committee, comprising representatives from 19 executive branch agencies and chaired by top Trump trade advisor Robert Lighthizer, will make its own proposal to the president.

In November, Lighthizer asked the ITC to send another report identifying "unforeseen developments" that led to the surge in solar panel imports into the United States.

That may help prevent potential tariffs from being challenged at the World Trade Organization, which has agreed with its member countries that safeguard actions be imposed only in the event of unexpected market developments, something U.S. law does not require.

SolarWorld and Suniva have argued that domestic manufacturers could not have foreseen China's massive investment in solar panel manufacturing capacity.

The ITC must deliver its supplemental report to the president later this month.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Richard Chang)