By Nichola Groom
Sept 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. Commerce Department on Wednesday asked a group of anonymous domestic solar manufacturers for additional information before it would consider a request to impose duties on panels produced in three Southeast Asian countries.
The move delays the department's decision which had been expected this week. The case is the latest dispute between U.S. solar project builders that rely on cheap imports for most of their supplies and the tiny domestic manufacturing sector that says it can't compete effectively with the flood of low-priced imports from Asia.
U.S. solar project developers have lobbied forcefully against any Commerce investigation into new tariffs, saying the probe alone would spook foreign solar producers they rely on and cripple a sector that is critical to meeting the nation's climate change goals.
The anonymous group seeking the tariffs last month asked the Commerce Department to investigate whether imports from Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam were unfair. It accuses Chinese producers of shifting manufacturing to those nations to avoid U.S. duties on solar cells and panels made in China.
On Wednesday, the Commerce department sent the group's attorney, Timothy Brightbill, a letter that set an Oct. 6 deadline for the so-called American Solar Manufacturers Against Chinese Circumvention to respond to a series of questions.
One question asks members of the group to identify themselves. The group said in filings with Commerce that its members wish to remain anonymous because they fear retribution in the marketplace, a claim the department has also asked it to explain.
The department said it would issue a decision within 45 days of receiving a response.
Brightbill did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association, the trade group that opposes the tariff request, said it was disappointed that the department did not dismiss the group's petition outright, but said the additional information would show that the petitioners "have no case." (Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Leslie Adler, Richard Chang and Aurora Ellis)
(Adds additional details from Commerce letter, background, comment from trade group)