President Donald Trump will get a chance to back up his populist trade rhetoric, put his mark on the U.S. solar industry and possibly throw SolarWorld’s Hillsboro plant a lifeline after regulators found today that an unremitting wave of solar imports is damaging U.S. manufacturers.

In a 4-0 vote, the U.S. International Trade Commission determined that Suniva Inc. and SolarWorld Americas Inc. had demonstrated injury in the first phase of a trade case that has split the U.S. solar industry. The ITC will move on now to decide a remedy, by mid-November, and it will be the president’s call to accept, reject or reshape it.

For SolarWorld Americas and its Hillsboro workforce an ultimate victory could be their only hope for survival. Employment at the 9-year-old factory has shrunk from 800 to 300 in the past several months after owner SolarWorld AG declared insolvency.

“On behalf of the entire solar cell and panel manufacturing industry, we welcome this important step toward securing relief from a surge of imports that has idled and shuttered dozens of factories, leaving thousands of workers without jobs,” Juergen Stein, CEO and president of SolarWorld Americas, said in a statement.

“In the remedy phase of the process, we will strive to help fashion a remedy that will put the U.S. industry as a whole back on a growth path. We will continue to invite the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and our industry partners to work on good solutions for the entire industry. It is time for the industry to come together to strengthen American solar manufacturing for the long term.”

SEIA, which has fought the trade petition with full force, said the decision threatens to devastate the industry, sending prices higher and dramatically slowing installations.

“The ITC’s decision is disappointing for nearly 9,000 U.S. solar companies and the 260,000 Americans they employ," Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the group, said in a statement. "Foreign-owned companies that brought business failures on themselves are attempting to exploit American trade laws to gain a bailout for their bad investments."

SEIA has waged a relentless campaign against SolarWorld and Suniva. The group claims the remedy outlined in Suniva's original filing could cost the U.S. industry 88,000 jobs in 2018, around one-third of the total solar workforce. Even the Oregon arm of the industry group has joined in opposing SolarWorld,a longtime member of the organization.

SolarWorld and Suniva have answered with their own jobs-related claim, saying an “effective remedy” would result in 114,800 new jobs in the U.S. by stabilizing solar prices and “ensuring American workers can compete against the surge in low-priced imports.”

Briefs in the remedy phase of the case are due next Wednesday, and the ITC will hold a hearing on Oct. 3. A recommendation to the White House is due by Nov. 13. The president would then have 60 days to render his judgment.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House, in a statement today, said it would "examine the facts" before making a decision, but added that “the U.S. solar manufacturing sector contributes to our energy security and economic prosperity.”

There were nuances to the commission's determination that could protect U.S. free trade partners Canada and Singapore from any tariffs or other penalties, but Wiley Rein attorney Timothy Brightbill, representing SolarWorld in the case, said in an email that "we strongly believe that today’s ruling will allow the president to deliver meaningful relief to strengthen and expand American manufacturing.

In a teleconference with media, SEIA's Hopper declined to preview her group's strategy in the remedy phase. However, she noted that the commission "is statutorily required to consider the impact on the larger solar ecosystem" in shaping its recommendation to the president, taking into account "what impact solar tariffs could have both on depressing demand and creating job loss."

The Portland Business Journal is a KGW News partner.