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UPDATE 2-SunPower seeks tariff waiver, cites plan for U.S. expansion

(Recasts with request for exemption, adds background)

March 16 (Reuters) - SunPower Corp on Friday asked the Trump administration to exempt a segment of its solar panel imports from new tariffs, saying the move would allow it to reverse proposed investment cuts and ease plans to expand U.S. panel manufacturing.

The request by SunPower, which is majority owned by France's Total SA, marks the first attempt by a major U.S. solar company to sidestep a controversial 30 percent levy on imported panels announced by President Donald Trump in January.

Trump had said the tariff would boost U.S. manufacturing, but many in the industry have warned of higher costs and thousands of layoffs in the much-bigger installation end of the solar industry.

"We understand the administration's goals," SunPower Chief Executive Tom Werner said in an interview. "We think we can contribute positively to those objectives."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It could not determined which other companies had filed such requests with the U.S. Trade Representative by the deadline on Friday.

SunPower's request covers only its imported premium, high-efficiency panels, and not the less efficient and cheaper "P-series" panels which dominate the market, Werner said.

San Jose, California-based SunPower manufactures most of its panels in the Philippines and Mexico.

Werner said an exemption would allow SunPower to "materially" reverse a decision made immediately after the tariff announcement in January to cancel a $20 million investment in its next-generation cell technology that would have created hundreds of jobs in California and Texas . SunPower last month said the tariff would force it to cut 150 to 250 non-manufacturing jobs.

The cheaper P-series panels could be made at a new U.S. facility that the company would build, probably in the Southwest, Werner said, noting that SunPower was in the process of narrowing down its options to two locations.

"This is not hypothetical. We're ready to make this happen," he said, adding that an exemption for premium panel imports would "facilitate" this plan.

A big investment in solar panel manufacturing as a result of the tariff would mark a win for the Trump administration, but so far the industry remains focused on the fate of the installation business, which employs tens of thousands of people.

Only China's JinkoSolar has said it plans to build a U.S. manufacturing facility, and SolarWorld, one of the panel producers behind the trade case that resulted in the tariffs, has said it will hire 200 employees this year.

Suniva, the bankrupt company that first petitioned the administration in April to impose tariffs, has not publicly outlined its plans.

The exemption request will undergo a 30-day comment period before the U.S. Trade Representative makes a decision. (Editing by Bernadette Baum and Richard Chang)