United States Winning the Clean Energy Race

The U.S. trade surplus with China in clean energy was more than $1.6 billion.

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In recent years, the balance usually tips in China's favor when it comes to trade with the United States. But according to a new study there's at least one sector in which America is starting to have the upper hand: clean energy.

The United States exported more clean energy products to China in 2011 than it imported, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts, ultimately amounting to a $1.63 billion trade surplus in solar and wind power equipment among other products.

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About $8.5 billion worth of clean energy goods and services shuttled between the world's two largest economies in 2011, according to Pew. While that's just a sliver of the half a trillion dollars' worth of goods and services traded between China and the United States, the U.S. surplus in the clean energy sector challenges widely held views that China is becoming the world's foremost supplier.

The United States has traditionally been viewed as a services-heavy economy and an insatiable importer, according to the report. But much of the coverage of China's growing clean energy industry masks some of the nuances of the production cycle and trade flows."There are some changes in trade patterns," says Nat Bullard, a researcher at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which compiled data for the Pew report. "We have some real strengths and China has some real strengths."

While China's advantage is in large scale, high volume manufacturing, the United States historically excels in exporting the "things that make other things, the ingredients," Bullard says. "We export the specialty chemicals and things like polysilicon that go into making that actual finished product."

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That means the U.S.-Chinese relationship as far as the clean energy sector isn't so much competitive as it is collaborative, Bullard argues. "We're fiercely cooperative," he says. "There's a dependence between these two industrial economies when it comes to creating clean energy products."

Solar products made up $6.5 billion of trade between the United States and China in 2011; the United States posted a $913 million surplus, according to the report. The wind industry accounted for more than $920 million in trade, with U.S. companies leaving the table with a $146 million surplus. Another $1 billion worth of goods was traded in LED, advanced batteries, and electric cars; the U.S. surplus amounted to more than $570 million.

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These kind of statistics demonstrate that there's no one sector propelling the United States to increased prominence in the global clean energy conversation. In order to maintain the country's burgeoning competitive edge in the sector, the nation needs a cohesive policy for companies in the industry, experts say.

"For a thriving domestic clean energy sector, the magic ingredient is steady predictable policy," says Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew's clean energy program. "That is the key component."

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