No, China Isn’t Eating Our Clean Energy Lunch

Despite the trade disputes we’ve all heard about – over solar cells and modules, especially, but also involving wind towers – U.S.-based clean-energy firms are more than holding their own with China. In fact, the U.S. had a $1.63 billion clean energy trade surplus with China in 2011, the last year for which full data is available, according to a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In a forward to the report, Bloomberg New Energy Finance CEO Michael Liebreich said the report demonstrates that global trade isn’t so much about trading goods as it is exchanging value added.

u.s. china clean energy trade

The U.S. has a big exporting edge in polysilicon (image via Hemlock Semiconductor)

“The conventional wisdom on clean energy trade is a microcosm of assumptions about U.S. and Chinese competitiveness,” Liebreich wrote. “The United States is viewed primarily as a services economy and an insatiable importer, while China is the workshop to the world: ‘China makes, the world takes,’ as author James Fallows once put it. This report challenges those assumptions, and its findings compel us to reimagine the conventional wisdom.”

It might be especially shocking to casual observers that the bulk of that U.S. surplus is in the solar sector. There, U.S. firms sent $3.7 billion in goods and services to “Chinese interests,” Pew said. With China solar exports to the U.S. at $2.8 billion (nearly entirely solar modules), the U.S. netted out $913 million ahead. As Pew explained:

China’s strength in production of solar modules is matched on the U.S. side by leadership in high-tech goods and services. The trading strength of the United States in this sector derives from competitive advantages in producing high-value inputs (polysilicon and wafers, both for making photovoltaic cells), materials used in making photovoltaic modules, and the capital equipment and systems necessary in solar factories.

There was far less trade between the U.S. and China in wind components in 2011: $923 million worth vs. $6.5 billion in solar. But there again, Pew said, “the U.S. wind industry excels in relatively high margin specialty materials” – things like control systems and fiberglass – and the U.S. had a $146 million trade edge. China exports were mostly in the massive towers that hold up wind turbines. As with solar, the U.S. industry has sought and won trade sanctions against Chinese wind tower manufacturers, and it will be interesting to see how those duties impact the trade ledger.

In any case, while China and the U.S. were scuffling over products like solar cells and wind towers, the U.S. was dominating trade between the two countries in the third of the three major clean energy sectors Pew identified, “energy smart technologies.” The Chinese sent a lot of smart meters, lithium-ion batteries and LED products to the U.S., but in a $1.1 billion sector the U.S. had a net trade surplus of $571 million. The winning edge for the U.S.: “U.S. firms exported more than $800 million worth of LED capital equipment to China while importing none.”

The full Pew Report, “Advantage America: The U.S.-China Clean Energy Trade Relationhip in 2011,” is available for download as a PDF.

 

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.