Global environmental challenges
The U.S. solar trade surplus
With China’s subsidy of its renewable energy industry likely to be a continued topic of debate in 2011, a new report on the United States’ solar exports offers some insights into the domestic industry.
The data is a bit dated – the report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research looks at 2009 imports and exports – but interesting nonetheless.
The number that grabs attention is the U.S.’ solar trade surplus — $723 million in net exports in 2009. For instance, the nation exported $1.1 billion in polysilicon that year. Polysilicon is the material from which wafers are made for conventional crystalline silicon photovoltaic modules. The U.S. controls 40 percent of the global polysilicon market while German has a 19 percent share and China a nine percent share.
Yet China controls nearly half of the global wafer market. The U.S. has only a three percent share.
“Thirty-one percent of the value of PV modules deployed in U.S. installations in 2009 was created domestically, while the remaining 69 percent came from foreign sources,” the report’s authors wrote. “The domestic value was primarily created in the areas of polysilicon production and module assembly for crystalline silicon modules, and capital equipment, glass manufacturing, labor, and value chain markup for thin film modules.”
In other words, the U.S. to some degree is shipping raw materials to other countries to be manufactured into higher value products that are then exported back to North America.
“China and Mexico were the locations that contributed the most to imports, while Germany, Japan, and China were the most prominent export destinations,” according to the report.
Still, the value generated by the domestic solar industry is not limited to manufacturing and includes jobs that are not imported.
“A significant portion of the revenue generated by solar projects resides beyond the physical components – as site preparation, installation labor, permitting, financing and other soft costs comprise nearly 50 percent of the total cost,” the report said.