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.