US Thumps China in Solar Panel Shipment

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 {complink 8019|General Electric Co.} 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.”

35 comments on “US Thumps China in Solar Panel Shipment

  1. prabhakar_deosthali
    August 31, 2011

    That is really the SUNNY side to US trade with China. US has always been at the forefront in developing cutting edge technologies and China is normally the first to cash in on new technologies with cheaper products. But for solar panels business it looks to be that US has managed to keep up with the prodcution also especially of the newer technology solar panels.


  2. Ariella
    August 31, 2011

    Yes, and GE is very proud of its solar panels. It is showing it off with solar powered carousel, called Carousolar. This revamped, all white carousel was introduced at the South by Southwest conference this year and is now at South Street Seaport in NYC. You can catch a free ride or charge up your device on the solar powered stations there until September 6th. Beyond rides, though, thin film solar panels should be possible to use in mobile devices. Apple is reported to be exploring such a possibility.

  3. c.roselund
    August 31, 2011

    Unfortunately, this article contains at least two inaccurate statements, not including the title. The report covered the entire solar value chain, not only solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. The United States is a net importer of Chinese PV panels, but a net exporter of polysilicon and manufacturing equipment to China.

    Also, the world record for conversion efficiency for mass-produced thin film PV modules, 13.4%, was set by Q-Cells subsidiary Solibro as of March of this year. The company has been manufacturing 13% efficient thin film modules for some time.

  4. Himanshugupta
    August 31, 2011

    Is it possible to get an estimate of the investment on solar in US and China? As your article says, 140 Billion is quite a huge market and i wonder how much buzz is there in the industry. Do you also know what is the roadmap of GE interms of efficiency of cheap thin film based solar panels?

    August 31, 2011

    As one of the authors of this report, it's disturbing to see how wrong the author got it. As the previous poster says, the US was NOT a net exporter of panels to China, or the world – it was an importer in both cases by a substantial degree. What it was a net exporter of was TOTAL solar goods, mainly because of polysilicon and capital equipment exports. Please read the study more carefully.

    Also, it really looks like you are drinking the GE kool-aid all the way. That 12.8% is a RECORD EFFICIENCY panel, which has been easily surpassed by a number of thin film firms – the record currently stands at 19.9% for CIGS technology, and at the 16% level for CdTe. These are carefully engineered cells, not representative of mass production results, and even in that case, Solibro has produced a higher efficiency panel in mass production.

    Shouldn't a prerequisite to writing about a subject be some background knowledge about it? Seems to be lacking in the case of the author.


  6. Ariella
    August 31, 2011

    Thanks for the comment.  I don't claim to be an expert on solar panel, but I am fairly careful about representing source material accurately. To clarify: in the blog I do not asser that the US is a net exporter of panels but represented the source's assertions that the US is a net exporter of “solar products.” The words of the blog itself are: “US shipments of solar products to China far exceed imports from the Asian rival by a range of $247 million to $539 million.”   The  references to solar panels come from other articles cited that refer to those specificially. I regret if you were mislead by the title, but I did not write it.

    As for the record of “record” level efficiency for thin film panels, that was mentioned i the Bloomberg article, “GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, announced in April that it had boosted the efficiency of thin-film solar panels to a record 12.8 percent .” and was   a focal point of quote:

    The record-setting panel was produced on the PrimeStar 30-megawatt manufacturing line in Arvada, Colo. It was measured by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) at a 12.8 percent aperture area efficiency. This panel surpasses all previously published records for CdTe thin film, which is the most affordable solar technology in the industry. “

    As for drinking the Kool-Aid, I originally did include the point made in an aritcle that at most the GE plant would only account for 3% of global demand for solar power, but that was edited out (perhaps due to space limitations). Such a small plant could make a difference for the 80,000 homes it could power, but it won't change the face of the globe. As with many forays into renewable energy, I don't think much will change overnight, but each development forges the way for further innovations and improvements.

  7. Ariella
    August 31, 2011

    Thanks for pointing this out, c.roselund. Again, I never claimed to be a solar panel expert, and this blog was more concerned with the US role in solar power as exemplified by GE than an overall assessment of the industry in every country. The people at National Renewable Energy Lab are the ones who declared the GE thin film solar panel, “independently certified as the most efficient ever publicly reported milestone for the technology” in April 2011. So a challenge to that assessment should really be directed at the lab.    

  8. c.roselund
    August 31, 2011

    When in a hole, it is best to stop digging. You should cite the NREL statment for independent verification. I doubt that when the details are examined they will be incorrect. It is well known knowledge within the industry that Solibro has posted higher than 12.8% efficiencies for mass-produced cells – but perhaps you are confusing cadmium telluride record efficiencies with overall thin-film efficiencies. Also, note that the measurement of efficiencies is specific to what is produced, with record aperature area efficiencies higher than cell efficiencies, and module efficiencies even lower.

    As for the statement about PV “products” and “panels”, it remains that the first sentence of this article and the title are both incorrect. The professional thing to do would be to change them and issue a retraction.

    Also, it does not take a subject area expert to read the executive summary of a report.

  9. elctrnx_lyf
    August 31, 2011

    Good to see that GE is helping US to improve the employment all the time. Is there any plans by GE to venture into more solar based products in the future?

    August 31, 2011

    I see Ariella's blog has got us all talking which is a good thing.  In the UK we are experiencing aa lot of hard selling of solar panel installations but as yet the uptake has not been strong.  Even with the generous government grants the solar investment would pay back about 7% pa at best which is not too attractive given the amount of upfront investment required by the home owner and risk of breakdown etc.  I hear Germany is embracing large commercial solar installations but I am not sure if smaller households are instaling them there.  It would be interesting to see what the uptake is like around the world from all our readers…….

  11. Ariella
    August 31, 2011

    @c.roseland, I make no claim of my own about the relative efficiencies of solar panels. I cited all sources in the blog. If you would have clicked on the link in the statement: “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,” you would have seen it takes you to 

    The article cited at the beginning of this blog is It refers to a report as follows:

    In fact, a report released this morning from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association found that the U.S. has a $247 million trade surplus with China.

    U.S. imports in 2010 were estimated at $1.4 billion, while exports were estimated to be between $1.7 billion – $2.0 billion based on the availability of data for capital equipment sales. This made the U.S. a net exporter of solar goods to China by $247 million to $539 million. 

    That is exactly what is conveyed by the blog's opening. Yes the opening sentence does say solar panels, and the word there should be “products” or something more general. Granted, one word here was off. The rest, though, makes it clear that the trade surplus is not due solely to panels. 


  12. Ariella
    August 31, 2011

    @elctrnx_lyf Well, a great deal of optimism emerged from the  carousolar exhibit: 

    from: GE’s Solar Powered Carousel Opens at the South Street Seaport! GE Carousolar Ride – Inhabitat New York City 

    GE is using the Carousolar to promote some of its new innovations in solar panel construction. Each solar panel uses an ultra thin film module, a cadium tellurium based semiconductor, to harness the power of the sun for electricity. The panels’ sleek and durable design allow it to withstand most extreme weather conditions including high temperatures, humidity, and UV rays. According to GE, their solar panels have “the smallest carbon footprint and fastest energy payback time of current PV technologies when measured on a life cycle basis.”

    While the Carousolar is a fun way to combine a familiar design with green technology, the solar panels are also a glimpse at what the future holds for solar power and other renewable energy innovation.


    It also opened a solar powered car park this year: 

    GE estimates that its new solar carport will deliver 125 MW hours annually over its 25 year lifespan. GE is not the first to install a solar carport (the New Jersey National Guard is among those beating it to the punch), but this one is designed specifically to charge electric vehicles. GE’s partner in the project, Inovateus Solar LLC, used several different designs in order to demonstrate various options for solar charging stations and showcase GE’s new technologies. In addition to fully charging up to 13 EVs daily, the solar panels will provide enough electricity to power the carport’s own overhead lighting. The whole thing is grid-connected, so GE anticipates shuntiGE estimates that its new solar carport will deliver 125 MW hours annually over its 25 year lifespan.

    Source: Clean Technica (


  13. Mr. Roques
    August 31, 2011

    I think the main reason is the years ahead the US has in developing the panels (efficiency, etc) and also the global growing demand for solar power.

    Do you think solar power will become something every household can afford to have?

  14. Ariella
    August 31, 2011

    Good point, Flyingscot. There is some concern about diminishing government subsidies that make some wary of investing in solar power. One of the goals GE claims is after is producing solar power so efficiently that it will be as affordable as traditionally produced electricity for consumers even without subsidies. Oh, I have to get some more Kool-Aid now.

  15. Ariella
    August 31, 2011

    Hi, Mr. Roques, interesting you should bring that up. The price of electricity does vary. The Bloomber article I cited included this: 

    Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co. (GE)

    “If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I’m hopeful that we will do, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home,” Little said yesterday in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office. The 2009 average U.S. retail rate per kilowatt-hour for electricity ranges from 6.1 cents inWyoming to 18.1 cents in Connecticut, according to Energy Information Administration data released in April.

  16. electronics862
    August 31, 2011

    US really investing resources in solar energy as they realized oil resources will be gone in next few years. After the BP spill over incident US invested billions of dollars in both university research and industries to come up efficient way of storing solar energy. 

  17. c.roselund
    August 31, 2011

    OK, so let me see if I have this right. Your article contains inaccurate statements, which you know now are inaccurate, and are refusing to change, or issue a correction because it's only a couple of lines?

    The first line you admit is incorrect. Second, your article states that “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.” You say thin film, and then “any other such panels”. GE's modules are not the highest efficiency thin film modules on the market, so this is a second inaccurate statement.

    But also you have done no original research, did not even read the report that you are “reporting” on, and admit that you cribbed other articles as your defense for these inaccurate statements – instead of doing what a journalist would do, and going to the source NREL materials.

    I am afraid this is a stunning example of why so much of what is on the internet posing as journalism is not journalism at all.

  18. Ariella
    September 1, 2011

    I cannot edit what went up because I do not have adminstrative access to the site. I concede to you on the first point for one word that should be changed in the body, but what I wrote about the status of GE thin film panels is an accurate representation of the sources cited for that information. The embedded link makes it clear that it is based on other authorities, not my own opinion.   Now that is something I am an expert on —  the difference between properly cited material and — a subject I've taught for years.  The difference in convention online that you may not be used to is using the link instead of a footnote. BTW I contacted the lab to ask about their findings. But really the point of this blog was not whether or not GE broke a record but to look at its plans to do more with solar power in the US.

  19. Ariella
    September 1, 2011

    @electronics862 You mention on particular incident, but there are also other reasons why the US is looking to get less dependant on fossil fuels for energy. One is not to be so affected by the fluctuations in price of oil, but another is also concern for the effects on the environment, particularly in certain areas of the country.

  20. charles1
    September 1, 2011

    >>>GE's modules are not the highest efficiency thin film modules on the market

    I think it's pretty clear that the post is based on GE's press release, which stated:

    “GE (NYSE: GE) today announced that a full-size, thin film solar panel developed by the company has been independently certified as the most efficient ever publicly reported milestone for the technology.”

    So in a nutshell, C. Roselund, just to clarify, you are saying that GE pulled one over on everyone and this is not true?

  21. charles1
    September 1, 2011

    Judging from the recently reported failure of Solyndra,

    A company heavily touted by the Obama administration and a recipient of plenty of our tax $, it looks like greeen energy is a long way off from being an economically feasible alternative in the US.



  22. c.roselund
    September 2, 2011

    Dear Charles,

    There are multiple thin-film PV technologies. Two of them are cadmium telluride and CIGS.

    I am unsure whether GE is claiming to have the highest efficiency mass-produced cadmium telluride modules on the market, or the highest efficiency mass-produced thin-film modules. It is also possible that they are being intentionally vague, as 12.8% is, again, simply not the highest efficiency thin-film module. In the article Ariella cites it is clear that they are talking about cadmium telluride. Ariella is not – and thus misinformation is born.

    CIGS modules have achieved higher efficiencies in mass production, and both technologies have acheived higher efficiencies under lab settings. GE may well have the highest efficiency for mass-produced cadmium telluride – the highest I have heard from First Solar is 12.6%.

    As for Q-Cells and their 13.4% efficient mass produced thin film modules, the release is here, with efficiencies verified by Fraunhofer ISE:

    As for the excuse about not having access to the site, Ariella: Citation or no citation, the statement you wrote is inaccurate. If you insert the words “cadmium telluride”, then I have no argument against its accuracy. Have your editor fix it. It is not in anyone's interest to have false or misleading information floating around the internet.

    Also, I find it terrifying that you have taught on the subject of journalism, as you did not do a minimum of research to assure that you had written an accurate article – like actually reading the SEIA/GTM report.

    For those seeking accurate information about the solar industry, I recommend my publication, Solar Server:

  23. charles1
    September 2, 2011

    C. Roselund,

    >>>I am unsure whether GE is claiming to have the highest efficiency mass-produced cadmium telluride modules on the market, or the highest efficiency mass-produced thin-film modules.

    The problem is GE worded their press release as claiming, “world's most efficient thin film solar panel.”  Just+ google that phrase (add the word GE) and you will get hundreds of hits all with the title “GE Builds the Most Efficient Thin-Film Solar Module Ever” from pretty impressive news sources and trade journals.  It looks like GE meant to claim the record only for CdTe panels, but it's not only EBN which reported their claim at face value as stated.  Unless you are going to start e-mailing hundreds of publications, the (mis)information is already out there.

    I thought the focus of the post here was the potential increase in market share that the solar panel industry, particularly GE, may grab in the near future.  To split hairs over whether there should be a qualifier that GE holds the record only for cdTE cells and not all cells is a quibble that does not change the main idea that GE's market share and the US market share in general is going up.

  24. c.roselund
    September 3, 2011

    Dear Charles,

    It is in fact a very big deal who and which technology has the highest efficiency for mass-produced thin films. Just because other two-bit blogs made the same mistake does not give this blog any excuse for printing inaccurate information.

    Also, as to your “larger point”: GE's market share will most certainly go up… because they start from zero. But there is no guarantee that GE will grab a significant share of the PV panel market, particularly as First Solar has been recently lost market share to Chinese crystalline silicon with the same technology and the lowest cost per watt in the industry.

    There is also the significant factor of competition within the thin film space from CIGS (or CIS), particularly CIS coming from Solar Frontier's new 900 MW factory in Japan. Because of that factor, it is very important which thin film technology has the highest efficiencies, the lowest costs, and other market factors.

    The U.S. market share of solar panel manufacturing IS NOT going up. The U.S. maintains a overall PV industry trade surplus due to sales of manufacturing equipment and polysilicon exports, which is the point of the GTM/SEIA report. The U.S. share of PV panel (module) manufacturing IS GOING DOWN.

    You would not know any of that from reading this article. And this is growing tiresome. Read the report, it's free.

  25. _hm
    September 5, 2011

    This indeed is quite informative topic. Authors of these topics are not expert with decades of experience, but well informed EE. Data may not be very accurate like that of IEEE Transaction, but contents gives direction of new develeopment and they are very interesting. This is true for lot of content on web. So, if you have better data, you may correct autor, but it should be in very mild voice. One day you may be worng, and do not expect all other EE to reprimand you for the same.

  26. Adeniji Kayode
    September 5, 2011

    @Electronic862, This is good to know and I want to sat that this is really a smart  move.I think nature one way or the other has been pointing us towards that direction, It is left for us to take advantage of what the Sun can do for us afterall, what can we do without energy.

  27. Ariella
    September 6, 2011

    There is a growing interest in exploring renewable energy in the US. You can even see this reflected in current museum exhibits. The Franklin Institute, for example, touches on considerations of one's carbon footprint in its new “Changing Earth” and Electricity exhibits. It is one step to make people more aware and another to make the technology for clean energy more affordable.

  28. Anand
    September 20, 2011

    That means that the US has emerged as “a net exporter of solar goods to China,” the report said.

    @ Ariella, thanks for post. Its interesting to know that US has emerged as a net exporter. Does it mean that most of the manufacturing jobs are coming back to US ? Curious What are the main reasons which is making US net exporter of solar goods rather than net importer ?

  29. Anand
    September 20, 2011

    US really investing resources in solar energy as they realized oil resources will be gone in next few years.

    @electronics862 I totally agree with you. Infact rising oil prices is increasing the inflation across the globe. So I guess we need more and more renewable energy sources so that dependcy on oil is reduced.

  30. Ariella
    September 20, 2011

    @anadvy, I haven't looked at the figures for manufacturing in general. But now that you brought up the question, I did a quick search and found this interesting article from 2010: :

    Contrary to the conventional view, manufacturing in the U. S. has been growing in the past two decades despite the decline in manufacturing jobs. The latest data show that the United States is still the largest manufacturer in the world. In 2008, U.S. manufacturing output was $1.8 trillion, compared to $1.4 trillion in China[1]. This means that the United States is producing goods with higher value, such as airplanes and medical equipment.

    [1] UN data. China’s data do not separate manufacturing from mining and utilities. So the actual Chinese manufacturing number should be even smaller.

  31. Kunmi
    September 20, 2011

    If managed very well, the sunny side of US-China trade will be great. US has taken a step that will pay off the generations to come in this country. It is just a matter of time. Going green is everywhere, waste is being reduced at all levels. Though it appeared gradual but it is working. The focus on gasoline we drop, the source of new energy will dent inflation in one part and boost the economy in many ways. We need to catch this vision and run with it.

  32. Kunmi
    September 20, 2011

    Remove energy from any substance or element, then there is no more life. The natural energy coverter is highly needed at this time to change our world. We have these natural resources, the more we are able to tap it, the better we are.

  33. Mr. Roques
    October 24, 2011

    Yes, varying electricity prices across the US will make adoption rates vary. The incentives each State has will also help (California being in the front line but I saw Connecticut as well – at 18 cents, who can blame them?) 

    There's an obvious tendency for very sunny states and cheap real estate to go for solar but States that have a limited electricity generation will push solar power forward as well.

  34. Mr. Roques
    October 24, 2011

    The biggest issues with solar power must be the efficiency factor and storage, both, I think, should be solved in the next couple of years.

    October 27, 2011

    Dear author,

    Your title and analysis in this article are completely incorrect. According to the figures in the report, the US does have a trade surplus in the imports and exports of overall solar GOODS, but NOT solar panels, or modules. Solar goods include the raw materials and capital necessary to produce the actual solar panels, as well as the finished solar panels themselves. Let's look at the numbers from the report:

    Solar trade with China (I'll use the high figure on US export value to China):

    Total US exports totaled $1.981 billion. Of this figure, Capital Equipment and Polysilicon accounted for $1.873 billion, or about 95% of US total exports to China. Again, these are two of the most essential components needed in the manufacturing of solar panels. PV module (solar panels) exports were $17 million, a little less than 1% of the total export figure. Think about that. Less than 1% of exports to China were finished solar panels. Total US imports totaled $1.441 billion. Of this figure, $1.154 billion were finished solar panels, or about 80%.

    Seeing these figures, there is absolutely no way to conclude that the “US Thumps China in Solar Panel Shipment”. Again, solar panel imports from China were $1.154 BILLION, while solar panel exports to China were $17 million. China's exports of solar panels to the US are 67 times greater than its imports of solar panels from the US. Essentially, the US is shipping the basic components necessary to create the solar panels to China, China is doing all the manufacturing and labor intensive production, and then shipping the solar panels back to the US to be used. China is kicking our butts in the solar industry, not the other way around.

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