The tariffs would range from 2.9 percent to 4.73 percent, The New York Times reported. Some considered that a slap on the wrist.
However, the department also said in the next few weeks, it would announce "a series of determinations regarding anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations," that could result in additional punitive steps to counter what U.S. firms feel are policies the Chinese government uses to give its manufacturers unfair advantages.
The decision announced Tuesday was prompted by complaints filed by six U.S. firms and by the U.S. division of SolarWorld AG, a firm based in Germany, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Some market analysts say Chinese subsidies are what explains the skyrocketing imports of Chinese solar panels, the value of which has jumped from $21.3 million in 2005 to $2.65 billion in 2011.
China controls 50 percent of the U.S. solar panel market. U.S. companies account for about a third.
The current size of the tariffs are apt to spark debate, given they could have been far larger. The companies had requested tariffs be set at 100 percent.
However, the symbolism of this salvo in U.S./Chinese trade relations could also be considered important.
"This is a huge victory for the U.S. solar industry and our 100,000 employees. Given all our expectations, this is really good news," Jigar Shah, president of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy.
But he also said, "This is far more reasonable than most of us were expecting."
Opponents of the decision claimed victory, though Chin's Commerce Ministry called the measure U.S. "protectionism."