LONDON (Reuters) - A brewing green energy trade war, with mooted U.S. retaliation against Chinese makers of solar panels and wind turbine parts, is high on rhetoric but distracts from a bigger technology race.
Washington is considering punitive import duties to balance the perceived injustice of Chinese industry subsidies.
A textbook cast of characters includes an election-year U.S. president seeking to punish Chinese "dumping"; domestic producers calling for "more than 100 percent" tariffs (which will conveniently wipe out competing imports); opposed consumer groups warning of price hikes; and Chinese officials' threats of retaliation.
A textbook would add a narrative. It would describe an economics argument that tariffs are an inefficient policy (production subsidies or R&D grants are better), and a political one, that they're nonetheless popular among leaders taking a swing at a trading rival.
The nuts and bolts of the case are that the U.S. arm of Germany's SolarWorld SWVG.DE, joined by a small, anonymous band of other manufacturers, asked the U.S. Commerce Department to impose duties on imported Chinese solar cells, the components of solar panels.
They claim massive subsidies have allowed Chinese manufacturers to sell at below cost, called dumping, with a deliberate aim to "gut" the U.S. industry.
Meanwhile U.S. manufacturers of wind towers, the steel posts that support turbines, have followed the solar trade move in what appears a copycat claim.
Certainly, ample evidence exists of Chinese solar support, not least on the swollen balance sheets of producers which have received soft loans.
However, both turbine towers and solar cells are also basic, commoditized technologies where you might expect a lower capital, lower cost economy like China to beat western rivals.
The U.S. Department of Commerce will decide next month whether to introduce preliminary duties on solar cells, and later on wind turbine towers.
But there's more to the story.
China is already the world leader in solar manufacturing and could lead shortly in wind turbines, in volume terms.
But producers also aim to lead these sectors, winning the technology race to produce the highest value products, and not just make more stuff more cheaply.
Clean technologies including low-carbon power and resource efficiency are tipped to transform commodities and energy over the next decades and so pose a national industrial opportunity.
Beijing says it plans $1.7 trillion investment in "strategic industries," especially clean technology, over the next five years.
On innovation, so far, western companies are still ahead.
While wind towers are relatively simple, turbines are complicated machines with thousands of parts and western producers including Vestas (VWS.CO), Gamesa GAM.MC, Siemens (SIEGn.DE) and U.S.-based GE (GE.N) lead: their onshore models produce more power from less wind than emerging economy rivals.
Similarly they have high performance machines which can cope with brutal offshore conditions where Indian and Chinese can't.
But that's gradually changing. China's Sinovel (601558.SS) recently won its first order, from a Chinese power producer, for its largest offshore turbine.
In solar, China already dominates manufacturing (having eight out of the top 10 producers, according to HSBC), and has achieved that almost entirely through exports.
Its plans to develop a domestic solar market will cement that dominance: it has introduced demand subsidies and unofficial capacity targets which local producers inevitably will reap, more so if U.S. tariffs spark a tit-for-tat skirmish.
The country is also advancing in innovation.
America's leading company First Solar (FSLR.O), has a clearly differentiated, "thin film" technology which is cheaper though less efficient than traditional silicon-based cells.
In Germany, companies including struggling Q-Cells QCEG.DE have continually made advances in silicon efficiency.
But leading Chinese producers have their own in-house research, developing and showcasing innovation. Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysts point to Yingli's (YGE.N) "Panda programme," and similar technology platforms at Trina TSL.N (Honey), Suntech STP.N (Pluto) and Renesola (SOL.N) (Virtus).
China's GCL Poly (3800.HK) is rapidly growing in the higher tech, upstream business of making raw solar-grade silicon and wafers.
Back to the trade textbook.
Rather than drive advances, tariffs will protect inefficient U.S. producers and also create pure economic waste: technically, this includes the extra amount consumers pay as a result of higher prices which the government can't capture in the tariff and local producers don't get in bigger sales.
A better policy may be to focus resources on funding what Americans are good at: innovation.
(The author is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own. Repeats column to additional subscribers.)
Reporting by Gerard Wynn