Despite concerns that the US may be losing out in its clean energy trade relationship with China, a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the US holds a trade surplus of more than $1.6 billion over the Asian economic powerhouse in solar, wind and energy smart technologies.
"If you add it all up, the United States does enjoy a $1.63 billion trade advantage with China, in 2011, for which the most complete data was available, across the three sectors that we looked at," Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew's clean energy program, said during a conference call
The report was based on data collected over eight months by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which looked at data from the US government, its own databases and a review of financial data released by public companies.
Concerns over a US clean energy trade imbalance with China, spurred by an influx of cheap Chinese solar panels, have led to tariffs on imports of those panels into the US.
Despite that, the Pew report found that while China did indeed export more panels to the US in 2011, the US exported to China more solar cells — a component of solar panels — and the high-tech machinery needed by the solar industry. Overall, the balance put the US ahead by about $900 million in solar alone. The US exported about $3.7 billion in solar technology to China, and China exported $2.8 billion to the US.
"If you follow simply the finished goods, so if you follow solar panels, China has an undeniable advantage right now," said Nathaniel Bullard, a clean energy and China analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "But if you look at the full ecosystem and the full value chain for these three clean energy sectors, the story is very different."
Wind followed a similar pattern, with the US exporting $535 million in wind-power equipment to China and China exporting $389 million to the US.
What the report describes as "energy smart technologies" — electric vehicles, smart meter components, lithium-ion batteries and LED light bulbs — also gave an advantage to the US, with $838 million in exports to China. In contrast, China exported $267 million in such technologies to the US.
The differences are driven primarily by a US advantage in innovating new technologies, even while China maintains nore economic manufacturing, according to Cuttino.
Although the analysis stems from 2011 data, an initial review of federal data for 2012 shows that while trade patterns are changing, the overall US advantage will remain, according to Bullard. Specifically, tariffs are driving down US imports of solar panels from China, even as they increase from South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia, he said.
"I don't think there has been a change in the comparative advantage necessarily, but there has been a change, driven by policy, in the way that the money has been flowing," Bullard said.
And while a cyclical downturn in capital equipment investment — a major component of US clean energy exports to China — could mean the US advantage could be diminished, it will likely bounce back as the next generation of advanced solar technologies is introduced, according to Hoil Kim, vice president of GT Advanced Technologies. The Nashua, New Hampshire-based company supplies about half of the world's capacity of solar-wafer technology used to produce solar panels worldwide, Kim said.