US leads China in solar exports


The study, "Advantage America: The U.S.-China Clean Energy Technology Trade Relationship," conducted by the nonpartisan think tank, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) finds that the U.S. racked up a US$913 million (€702.6 million) surplus in the solar sector during 2011, compared to its Asian rival.

Overall, it says that U.S.-based companies traded over $3.7 billion (€2.8 billion) worth of photovoltaic goods and services with Chinese interests during the 12 month period, while Chinese companies exported $2.8 billion (€2.2 billion) to the U.S.

Based on current trade flows, says Pew and BNEF, reality reflects that China is a low-cost producer; and the U.S., a high-volume consumer of finished products. "But underlying these truths is a trading relationship that is more nuanced, in which the U.S. has key strengths that often go unrecognized," states the study.

It added, "Misunderstanding of clean energy trade realities is fed by broad-based turmoil in the marketplace resulting from intense international competitive pressures, rapid price declines, and policy uncertainty in U.S. and European markets. High-profile clean energy trade cases involving Chinese exports of photovoltaic cells and modules to the U.S. also amplify confusion about the nature of this trade between the two countries."

Supply and demand

Solar energy product exports are the largest component of U.S.-China clean energy trade for both countries. Combined, firms based in the two nations traded more than $6.5 billion (€5 billion) worth of solar products and services to each other in 2011.

Specifically, there are seven categories of products in the sector. According to the report, China has a major edge in just two, as follows:

  • Polysilicon: The leading U.S. polysilicon firms exported $684 million (€527 million) worth of polysilicon to China in 2911. China has its own major producers, such as GCL-Poly Energy Holdings; but those firms do not export to the U.S., and instead serve primarily local and other international markets.
  • Wafers: The U.S. is also a major wafer exporter, with exports worth $289 million (€222 million) in 2011. Chinese firms do not export wafers to the U.S.
  • Photovoltaic cells: The world’s largest solar manufacturers are located in China, so it is no surprise that it leads in this category. In 2011, Chinese companies exported $151 million (€116 million) worth of photovoltaic cells to the U.S., while the U.S. exported cells worth just $14 million (€11 million) to China.
  • Photovoltaic modules: Here, too, China leads. Chinese PV module exports to the U.S. constitute the single largest component of clean energy products traded between the two countries. In 2011, Chinese firms exported $2.65 billion (€2 billion) worth of photovoltaic modules to the U.S. In contrast, U.S. firms exported modules worth just $12 million (€9 million) to China.
  • Solar materials (e.g., foam back sheets; plastic encapsulates and specialty metal compounds): U.S. firms sold over $500 million (€385 million) worth of solar materials to Chinese interests in 2011. A number of major U.S. chemicals firms have also established large manufacturing capabilities in coastal provinces in China. Chinese firms, however, did not export statistically meaningful amounts of solar materials to the U.S., says the study.
  • Inverters: U.S. manufacturers reportedly exported $9.6 million (€7.4 million) worth of inverters to China in 2011. Meanwhile, none were said to be imported into the U.S. from China.
  • Capital equipment: Solar capital equipment, used to make polysilicon and wafer, includes furnaces and wire saws, deposition chambers and coating machines, robotics and "clean rooms". "Trade in capital equipment used in solar manufacturing processes constitutes a significant component of the U.S.-China trade relationship in the clean energy sector, with all of the trade flowing from the United States," says the study. In 2011, U.S. firms exported $2.2 billion (€1.7 billion) worth of equipment to China.

Thus, based on the study, China’s strength in production of photovoltaic modules is well-matched on the U.S. side by leadership in high-tech goods and services. To date, it has been common knowledge that the U.S. and China are leaders in the clean energy sector.

Indeed, it shows that they attracted more than 39% of worldwide clean energy investments in 2011. What’s more, they ranked first and second in terms of annual investment, and were first and second in terms of total installed renewable energy generating capacity as of 2011.

However, the report provides a more balanced – and neutral – viewpoint on the balance of trade between the two major powers than has been seen to date.

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