2013 is shaping up to be another record-breaking year for the U.S. solar industry, with 832 megawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) installed in the U.S. in the second quarter of 2013, making it the second largest quarter in the industry’s history. As the U.S. solar market continues to grow, an important yet perhaps misunderstood aspect of solar production continues to bother some consumers: How many solar panels, and what percentage of the components that comprise or surround them, are made in the U.S.?
Over the past several years, Asian-based solar manufacturers, particularly those from China and Taiwan, have grown remarkably. Whereas in 2006 only two of the top 10 solar cell producers were based in China, in 2012 that number had jumped to six, with only two of the top 10 hailing from the U.S. Indeed, a full two-thirds of the solar cells and modules that the U.S. imports come from Asia. Yet, even the products made by American-based solar companies are not necessarily completely “Made in America,” as these companies source significant percentages of the components used to build their products from other countries.
Clearly, this is an issue that has captured the attention of the industry, including institutions such as the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). According to a GTM Research Study prepared for SEIA, 73% of total PV system value in the U.S. was created domestically in 2010, up from 71% in 2009. Good news, right? Well, not exactly. That 73% refers to the total PV system, which includes manufacturing, site preparation, labor, soft costs, value chain markup, etc. Conversely, if we look at the PV modules (the packaged, connected assembly of solar cells) deployed in the U.S., only 30% of that value was domestically created in 2010, with the other 70% coming from foreign sources. This discrepancy stems from China’s dominance in global wafer production, where it commands 52% market share (the U.S. has 3%), and in solar cell production, with China responsible for producing half of all crystalline silicon cells (the U.S. makes 3%).
So is there any good news? Sort of. Despite the low share of domestic value in crystalline silicon modules installed in the U.S., American exports of these modules exceeded $1.2 billion in 2010. Also, 88% of the value from concentrated solar power (systems use mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight onto a small area) in 2010 was created domestically, with only the mirrors being sourced internationally. Finally, when it comes to thin film modules, a relatively new technology first seen as the small strips powering handheld calculators, the percentage of domestic value in U.S.-installed modules was 71% in 2010, and 97% of all thin film modules installed in the U.S. were manufactured domestically. However, these positive numbers are more a function of the small number of prominent thin film manufacturers as compared to crystalline silicon, where manufacturing is distributed across the globe and is far more competitive.
Despite these complicated findings, there are still several companies that advertise their products as “Made in America” like Sunetric does. We guarantee at least 50% of products within an installation are made in America, and that all of its component and equipment suppliers comply with either or both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or the Buy American Act. For example, our entire line of Suniva modules uses 85% American components and, as of May of 2013, Suniva started manufacturing 100% of their modules in the U.S. Supporting the American solar industry is important to us, so we’re constantly looking for ways to increase the percentage of U.S.-made components.