Solar Stunner: America is a $1.9 Billion Exporter of Solar Products

With all the stories about China dominating the solar photovoltaics (PV) manufacturing sector, you might not think that America is a net exporter of solar products. But it is — to the tune of $1.8 billion. That’s a $1 billion increase over net exports documented in the solar sector last year.

In fact, a report released this morning from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association found that the U.S. has a $247 million trade surplus with China.

U.S. imports in 2010 were estimated at $1.4 billion, while exports were estimated to be between $1.7 billion – $2.0 billion based on the availability of data for capital equipment sales. This made the U.S. a net exporter of solar goods to China by $247 million to $539 million. Imports came predominantly from modules ($1.2 billion), while exports were driven by capital equipment ($708 million to $1 billion) and polysilicon ($873 million).

Solar isn’t just about the module. When looking at polysilicon production, equipment for manufacturing lines, power electronics, solar hot water tanks, and any number of other domestically-produced products, the U.S. actually offers a good-sized contribution to the global market.

The 2011 Solar Energy Trade Assessment is a follow up from last year’s report, which found U.S. net exports in 2009 were worth $723 million.

The $1 billion surge in net exports came during a year when the U.S. solar market grew by over 100%. Due to the successful Treasury Grant Program and Loan Guarantee Program that made it easier for developers and manufacturers to finance facilities, the solar sector grew faster than ever before.

And all that solar — particularly solar PV — brings immense value to the domestic economy.

According to the trade assessment report, around 73% of the value of an installed solar system (equipment, labor, site management) is created domestically. When looking at the total solar-sector contribution to the economy, solar PV represents about 82% of the domestic value, with concentrating solar power and solar heating and cooling representing about 9% a piece.

And these calculations don’t even consider the potential value to the electricity system. A report released in June by three solar researchers found that solar PV offers 15-40 cents per kilowatt-hour in added “value” due to its ability to match peak demand, reduce the need to build expensive transmission lines and provide local environmental benefits.

But whether or not policymakers will recognize these tangible benefits is very uncertain. With basic support mechanisms like the Treasury Grant and Loan Guarantee programs set to expire, and the House set to slash funding for various energy programs, America’s solar trade surplus could close quickly.

The findings of today’s GTM Research/SEIA report may surprise a lot of people, especially those who have focused on the Evergreen Solar bankruptcy story or the uncertain fate of thin-film manufacturer Solyndra as reasons not to invest in solar. In reality, solar is a very diverse sector — the $5.6 billion in equipment exports from the U.S. is an important reminder of that diversity and economic potential.

22 Responses to Solar Stunner: America is a $1.9 Billion Exporter of Solar Products

  1. Leif says:

    Reports like this make it quite clear that the reason that the GOBP is against renewable energy is not because it is a zero sum game but because it springs leaks in the fossil industry profits and subsequently the GOP politicians intervenes money tube.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Surprising news, thanks, Stephen. Leif, we probably haven’t heard about it because MSM is in the same trough as the oil companies.

    If there are any California large commercial building owners out there, we can install solar for no cost and do debt, and you keep the utility savings, too. A proprietary financial instrument makes it all work, though we’re an engineering design/build company with major experience on that end, too.

    Interested parties can email me at Principals only, please.

  3. An industry where we can compete! So why, again, is subsidizing oil exploration good for our economy?

  4. Leif says:

    Does that only work in California Mike?

    I was surprised to learn the other day that Washington has a $1.08 /kWh “feed in tariff” for community solar PV if Washington products and labor are used. People should be lining up at the doors. My new home PV will be mostly paid for in energy savings and incentives in 10 years. A RoI just under 10% Do that on Wall Street if you are not an inside trader.

  5. SecularAnimist says:

    I would like to invest in solar. The difficulty is that the industry is evolving rapidly and is rather turbulent, and it is pretty difficult to predict which companies will succeed and which will be assimilated or simply go bust. It reminds me of the early days of the personal computer industry, circa late 1970s.

  6. prokaryotes says:

    More stunner

    Germany generates now officially 20% of energy from renewable energy generation!

  7. Joe Romm says:

    Thanks. Will blog on it!

  8. Leif says:

    My imagination gets all giddy thinking of the potential should the capitalistic fossil economy just get on the bus. Not only is there money to be made but countless lives to be saved, ecosystems salvaged and enhanced, species on the verge of extinction secured,… the list goes on. But NO, There is MORE MONEY to be made by powerful people promoting Tar Sand, consumption and exploitation. Money trumps all. Does it have to?

  9. At the other end of the spectrum from Mike Roddy, there are opportunities in solar cell manufacturing processes.

    For descriptive info:
    qualified investors only, please

  10. Doug Bostrom says:

    Nice bit of fresh air; for some reason I woke up this morning grumbling to myself about the war on the middle class inadvertently unleashed by fund managers working on behalf of the middle class. We set up expectations that drive jobs overseas. Here’s a bright spot!

  11. Andy says:

    It would be interesting to see how these figures translate to jobs. Over the past several years, certain sectors have substantially increased their exports (perhaps with the help of the weakened dollar), but that doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent in unemployment/under-employment. It probably doesn’t help that some of them are highly mechanized, and many corporations are still hoarding cash to bolster balance sheets. But this solar news is a promising sign that there’s still a lot of potential. Now if only we had cap & trade to help drive economies of scale, and renewables weren’t as dependent on politically uncertain incentives.

  12. dp says:

    exports to china grew to 6-7x previous size. exports elsewhere grew slower than market.

    to the extent that these are intracompany transfers, getting a larger share of assembly jobs may face ‘domestic’ opposition.

  13. sault says:

    We still have around $1B trade deficit in PV modules. The major catagory holding up the solar trade surplus is ploysilicon and “capital equipment”. It’s good that we increased polysilicon production in the face of high prices during 2005 – 2008, but it looks like it’s mostly going to China where they make it into modules and sell them back to us. In addition, CdTe cells and other thin-film PV don’t use polysilicon, so if the industry keeps moving away from Si solar cells, the trade surplus could evaporate. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we have a surplus, but we are not being strategic and thinking long term about how we develop our solar industry.

  14. Stumo says:

    Agree with Sault. The fact that a majority of exports polysilicon means that we are primarily a raw material exporter. The value add occurs in China, with the resulting technology and employment necessary to do so. Developed economies export finished goods, colonies export raw materials. Technology advances most where the manufacturing occurs. Overall, the biggest U.S. exports to China are scrap metal and recovered paper, both are raw materials for making finished products.

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    Just in California for now, Leif- we’re design/build as well as finance, and that doesn’t travel well. Also, there is plenty of sun in California to make the numbers work. Commercial solar has tighter space requirements than residential.

  16. std says:

    The industry is not “moving away from Si solar cells.” CdTe market share(the only currently significant non-Si technology) peaked in 2009 and dropped substantially in 2010 ( This is not due to contraction in CdTe, but rather massive growth in Si which was back up to 92% market share with 87% for wafer-based Si and the rest for thin film Si (

  17. Audre says:

    Green energy-related jobs in the U.S. have been increasing at a rapid pace- faster than the average for other jobs — but in horizontal markets rather than just in the relatively small solar energy vertical markets. So the effects are is not as visible (or well reported) – this from the Brookings Institute report Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment published in July, 2011.

  18. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Yes. US has been leading in Solar Products from the beginning. Even in Wind US was the first country to promote it in a big way in California. With rapid increases in the efficiency of Solar Cells,US Solar Industry is expected to blossom.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert

  19. David B. Benson says:

    Leif | August 29, 2011 at 10:55 am — By Washington do you mean Washington state?

  20. James Newberry says:

    If the reported 100% growth of solar were continued by favorable national policy then the market might double each year. That looks like 2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256,1012,2024, etc.

    That is about one generation for displacement of carbon and nuclear fuels. You can be sure the entrenched paradigms of fuels, including mining and investment banks, will do everything possible to delay that scenario. Especially with help from the Texas-Canadian Tea Party.

  21. BlueRock says:

    It’s only going to get better:

    * Germany: Solar PV electricity falling rapidly in cost. Current cost for PV electricity is ~0.15 € (US $0.22) / kWh. Wacker Chemie, one of the world’s largest polysilicon manufacturers, predicts ~0.08 € (US $0.12) / kWh by 2016, making it cheaper than natural gas electricity.,1518,783180,00.html