A striking new report finds that China is a net importer of clean technology from America
A casual glance at the business headlines might suggest that China’s renewable-energy industry is an unstoppable juggernaut. Over the past decade, Chinese firms have used supportive government policies and lavish subsidies to leapfrog to the top of the world’s wind and solar industries. This has prompted political backlashes overseas—especially in America, where Chinese exporters have faced anti-dumping duties and worse.
So China must hold a massively large trade surplus in clean energy with America, right? Quite the opposite, finds a striking report titled “Advantage America” released on March 6th. The two countries traded about $6.5 billion in solar, wind and smart-grid technology and services in 2011—and America sold $1.63 billion more of such kit to China than it imported from there. The analysis was done by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), an industry publisher, and funded the Pew Charitable Trusts, a charity.
More surprising is the fact that America’s lead was maintained in all three categories studied by the boffins: solar, wind and smart energy technologies (see chart). One important explanation for this is that while China has strengths in large-scale assembly and mass manufacturing, it lacks the innovation to come up with high-value inputs. So American ingenuity is required to supply Chinese factories with such things as polysilicon and wafers for photovoltaic cells, and the fibreglass and control systems used in wind turbines.
The resulting picture is one that is reflective of the broader US-China relationship beyond trade. The two countries, though often appearing at loggerheads, are actually best seen in symbiosis. As Michael Liebreich of BNEF puts it in the report’s foreword, “the United States and China…are not so much competing as they are interdependent.”