HONG KONG — A study sponsored by the solar power industry has concluded that the United States ran a trade surplus of $1.88 billion in solar technologies last year, as exports of raw material and factory equipment for the solar sector outpaced imports of finished solar panels.
The report is clearly aimed at addressing worries about the rapid rise of Chinese solar panel manufacturers, who now represent 58 percent of the world’s solar panel manufacturing capacity.
American solar panel makers have been struggling, including Evergreen Solar, which filed for bankruptcy this month and had already moved early this year to shut down most of its production in the United States.
It takes up to two years for a conventional blue solar panel to produce as much electricity as it took to manufacture the device, prompting critics to suggest that solar panels in some ways resemble batteries as well as power generation technologies. Much of the electricity for making a solar panel goes into producing the main material, polysilicon.
Cheap hydroelectric power from dams on rivers in the Pacific Northwest region has turned the United States into a big exporter of polysilicon. The country exported $2.52 billion worth of polysilicon last year while importing $179 million worth of polysilicon, the report said.
Figures in the report appeared consistent with United States Customs data from Global Trade Information Services, a data service based in Columbia, S.C.
GTM Research, a renewable energy market analysis firm based in Boston, produced the report, which was sponsored by the Solar Energy Industries Association and scheduled for release on Monday. The association is a trade group representing solar power companies, including the American subsidiaries of Chinese solar panel manufacturers.
The United States also ran a large surplus last year in factory equipment used to manufacture photovoltaic devices like solar panels, exporting $2.55 billion worth of the equipment while importing $428 million
Shayle Kann, a managing director of solar power studies at GTM Research, said in an interview Sunday that American exports of factory equipment to manufacture photovoltaic devices might slow this year. But he attributed this to a weak global economy that had slowed growth in demand for solar power.
“It’s not necessarily anything to do with the U.S. being competitive,” he said.
China is trying to build its own industry to produce solar manufacturing equipment, however, and has lured companies like Applied Materials of the United States to set up large research labs in Chinese cities like Xi’an.
The bilateral surplus in the sector with China was at least $247 million last year, despite $1.15 billion in solar panel imports, the report said.
The New York Times