China has a huge trade surplus with the United States in many segments of the economy but not, surprisingly, in the sale of solar panels, according to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
A recent report from the two organizations indicates US shipments of solar products to China far exceed imports from the Asian rival by a range of $247 million to $539 million. The estimated figure for 2010 imports to the US is $1.4 billion, and the figure for exports ranges from $1.7 billion to $2 billion. That means that the US has emerged as "a net exporter of solar goods to China," the report said. The net export figure represents a $1 billion increase from the previous year -- an unprecedented growth rate of more than 100 percent.
Before this report, the conventional view was that American efforts were failing in the solar market. This was illustrated by the recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of the Massachusetts company Evergreen Solar, despite its announcing plans to shift production to China. But it seems that solar panel production is actually thriving in the US and is likely to grow even more.
A Reuters report noted that worldwide "demand for solar panels has grown more than 30 percent annually in recent years, topping 15 gigawatts in 2010." And that number could go even higher this year. A Bloomberg News report said installation of solar panels may "increase by as much as 50 percent in 2011, worth about $140 billion, as cheaper panels and thin film make developers less dependent on government subsidies."
One of the companies that sees a bright future in solar power in the US is General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) with its focus on thin film solar panels. Most solar panels use silicon-based photovoltaic cells; thin film panels make up about "15 percent of the $28 billion in worldwide solar-panel sales," according to the Bloomberg report. Thin film panels offer advantages over PV solar modules. Their light weight and resilience make them more flexible, convenient, and amenable to maintenance than other solar modules. The disadvantage associated with them is the comparatively lower efficiency, which GE has sought to remedy in its development.
In April, GE succeeded in attaining 12.8 percent efficiency on its thin film solar panels -- better than any other such panels on the market. The company also announced plans to invest $600 million in a 400MW US plant that would employ 400 people and open in 2013. The plan is for the plant to produce enough power to supply 80,000 homes at a cost comparable to or even lower than traditional sources.
"We are addressing the biggest barrier for the mainstream adoption of solar technology: cost. We are on track to deliver the most affordable solutions for our customers," Victor Abate, vice president of GE’s renewable energy unit, told reporters. Looking beyond the domestic market, "our plan to open a US solar manufacturing facility further demonstrates our confidence in this technology and is just the first phase in a global, multigigawatt roadmap."