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Study: U.S. solar industry a net exporter

Even with the rise of Asian manufacturing in solar, an analysis finds the U.S. accrues 75 cents of economic value for every dollar spent on solar.

With more and more solar panels being manufactured in Asia, the U.S. is missing the boat on solar, right? Wrong, according to a study published today.

The Solar Energy Industry Association commissioned a report done by GTM Research, which analyzes where money is spent in the solar industry, from raw materials to final installation.

Its two main conclusions are that U.S.-based companies in the solar supply chain earn more revenue than Chinese manufacturers, which now dominate production of solar panels. The other is that for every dollar spent to install solar panels in the U.S., about 75 cents worth of economic value accrued to the U.S.

The study seeks to upend the convention view that the U.S. is losing out of economic benefits of solar because it is difficult to manufacture in the U.S.

About 70 percent of solar panels sold in the U.S. are manufactured in Asia, a percentage that has climbed rapidly in the past two years. But much of the spending on solar happens in the U.S. simply because about half the cost of solar energy is in the installation and permitting.

"People often worry that if we are creating incentives for demand here in the U.S., you're just shipping jobs to China," said Shayle Kann, an analyst at GTM Research. "But you are creating jobs in installation, permitting, financial, and legal areas. You're still creating an industry here even though it's not a manufacturing industry."

A surprising finding is that that the U.S. is a net exporter in the solar industry by $1.9 billion. GTM Research came to that finding by looking at the different steps on the solar industry supply chain.

Most solar cells are made from silicon, which is purified and cast into ingots. Those ingots are then sliced into wafers. Then these five-inch-square wafers are treated and converted into solar cells during manufacturing. The cells are then assembled into solar modules, or panels.

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U.S.-based companies, notably GT Solar and Applied Materials, sold $1.4 billion worth of "capital equipment," or the machines used during solar cell manufacturing. Also, in 2010, the U.S. supplied 25 percent of the solar-grade silicon, accounting for $179 million.

Manufacturers from Asia are moving into these parts of the solar supply chain as well, albeit more slowly than they have in silicon wafers and cells, Kann said.

With solar panels becoming commodity products, does it make sense to manufacture them in the U.S.? Kann said it does in certain cases. For example, a global company could have one of its plants to serve the North American market. The other is if a company has a significant technical advantage, such as a thin-film manufacturer launching its first plant, Kann said.