05/23/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

The Solar Trade Balance in the Tariff Debate

After the United States Commerce Department last week announced preliminary tariffs of more than 31 percent against solar panel manufacturers in China for dumping their products on American shores, the debate over the benefits and costs of the move for U.S. industries and the fight against global warming has been heating up more than the noon sun. Clearing up one debating point could help those on both side of the issue assess the impact of the decision: the U.S. solar trade balance (or lack thereof) with China.

As background, Commerce already levied a preliminary, much smaller tariff against China in March for subsidizing its solar industry to the competitive disadvantage of U.S. solar manufacturers. The dumping charge is related in that Chinese companies were found to be selling panels at well below actual cost, imperiling U.S. companies' ability to sell panels. Those in favor of the tariffs say that imposing them will assure that the U.S., which once was a world leader in solar panel production, will have a foothold in what is sure to be an important industry in the future. Also, if China is allowed to dominate the market, they could suddenly raise prices after driving out competitors. Those against the tariffs recognize the need for more widespread use of solar to mitigate global warming and acknowledge that cheap panels help this happen. They also herald the $8 billion solar installation industry.

Some opponents of the tariffs cite a 2011 study that found the U.S. solar trade balance is positive. According to research by the Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S. was found to have a $1.88 billion surplus in solar goods in 2010. The U.S. was a net exporter to China by $240 million. While China may supply most of the panels, the argument goes, the U.S. supplies most of the polysilicon needed for the photovoltaic (PV) cells for the panels. So we shouldn't be worrying about the Chinese subsidizing panel-makers or those companies selling at unrealistic prices.

In an interview on Tuesday with the impeccable Tom Ashbrook on NPR's On Point, Ned Harvey of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit foundation for sustainability, and Clyde Prestowitz, the founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute, danced around -- or perhaps tripped over -- this argument:

Ned Harvey: "Well, one, I think, and people recognize this, that there is a pretty significant trade surplus from the United States good in solar PV materials going from the U.S. to China, so they're very dependent on U.S. products.

Tom Ashbrook: For now.

Harvey: For now, yes, but I think that's going to be the case for some time.

Clyde Prestowitz: If I could say something, just a minute, I think that surplus is gone, Ned.

Harvey: Well, the last analysis anybody's done, yeah it could be, but the last analysis anybody's done would say that it's a 400 to 900 million dollar surplus.

Prestowitz: I've heard that number. But I think it's gone.

Ashbrook: They can swing.

Harvey: They can swing in a hurry."

Recently the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing came out with a report showing that in 2011 the nearly $2 billion solar trade surplus turned into a deficit. Specifically, the trade balance with China went from a $240 million surplus to a $1.6 billion deficit.

While one should always be skeptical of an analysis by a trade group that could be negatively impacted by continued cheap solar panels from China, the concerns echoed remarks by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. Major environmental blog sites accept the findings.

Without getting into the trenches of the debate, the existence of the solar trade deficit would seem to support those who fret about China's dominance of the solar industry, for the U.S. is playing an increasingly smaller role in producing the parts for panels. All of this could change, however, if Chinese companies move plants to the U.S. or other countries to manufacture panels to avoid tariffs. And all of that could be a moot point if panel costs rise too much to entice Americans to retrofit their homes, as those against the tariffs claim. Let the debate blaze on, but know that the real winners in solar in the U.S. are the installers, not the supply chain or manufacturers.