Growing US solar industry sees bright future in international trade

Today the fledgling US solar industry is peddling its wares around the world with considerable success and, as it matures, industry leaders hope to grab an even larger share of the international trade in solar cells, collectors, wind machines, and related equipment.

In 1980, US solar exports totaled $36 million, up 57 percent from 1979. This year total sales abroad should reach $65 million, says Tom Jacobius of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) who studies this subject for the Department of Energy.

The star of the solar export market is the solar cell, or photovoltaics industry. Single-handedly it accounted for $25 million in overseas sales, 69 percent of the total, Jacobius reports. In fact, foreign sales in 1980 equaled domestic sales in this sophisticated technology.

''For the US photovoltaics industry in general, its strength lies in the technology. Manufacturers indicate that the current US lead in commercially available photovoltaic technology and the large, relatively untapped world market have combined to limit the impact of foreign competition on US photovoltaic export sales,'' observes Jacobius and Justin A. Bereny of the Solar Energy Information Services (SEIS) in the report ''1980 Update Study of US Industry Solar Exports.''

The current dearth of foreign competition in the solar cell market is not expected to last long. Japanese and European companies have been investing heavily in solar cell research and development. Also, the Reagan administration has cut back federal funds in this area substantially.

Still, through joint ventures and foreign subsidiaries, US companies expect to maintain a very strong world market position, Jacobius says.

A far second to photovoltaics in the foreign market are the manufacturers of flat-plate solar collectors like those used to heat swimming pools or those installed on the roof of a home for hot water or space heating.

In 1980, US collector manufacturers sold some $7.4 million worth of equipment in other nations. This was a 14 percent increase from the year before, but accounted for only 3 percent of total collector sales. As with photovoltaics, most of the sales were in Europe and Asia. But, unlike the solar cell business, American manufacturers must reckon with highly competitive foreign collector industries.

As a percentage of total sales, US wind-machine makers sold more to other countries than collector manufacturers. However, this amounted to only $1 million out of a 1980 total sales of $19 million, finds the IIT-SEIS study. Most of the wind turbines sold were quite small. But the recent development and successful testing of very large wind machines - up to several megawatts in electrical generating capacity - could open up much bigger overseas markets in the near future.

Altogether 22 companies were responsible for 76 percent of the total overseas sales, says Jacobius. This is because it's quite expensive to set up an overseas operation. Peter Thompson, late of the Solar Energy Research Institute, estimates that setting up an export business costs a small company about $83,000 a year. However, the potential for profits is substantial.

Last year, the US Departments of Commerce and Energy sponsored four trade shows to demonstrate US solar technology overseas. They estimate that by year's end the companies involved will have sold $59.6 million as a result of these promotion efforts.

Next year the Department of Commerce is planning 14 events overseas to promote US solar equipment, says department spokes-woman Libby Walker. These include trade fairs, trade missions, and seminars. They also hope to make a videotape of US solar systems to take on the road overseas.

''As a result of recent cutbacks, the Department of Energy division working in this area was abolished, but we're still interested in working with you to heat up the export market in solar,'' Miss Walker says.

Because of the recession in the US, many solar companies are looking overseas to see if they can capitalize on the better economic conditions in many other countries as well as the higher fuel costs which make solar more competitive.

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