The Economy's Bright Spot: Solar

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There isn't a lot of positive news coming from the U.S. economy right now. Unemployment is stagnant, GDP may be about to turn into recession territory, and the government is running a huge deficit.

But there are bright spots. And one of those bright spots is the solar industry.

As much as I've criticized the Obama administration's execution of incentives for alternative energy, the idea was in the right place, and with the government's help the industry is growing.

Growing from the power of the sun
In 2010, solar installations grew 104% to 887 MW. During the first quarter of 2011, installations grew another 66% to 251.5 MW. Name another part of the economy that is growing at 66% and shows no signs of stopping. And that's before massive projects in California even begin to come online.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. now has 93,500 direct and indirect solar industry jobs, more than the steel industry and twice as many as last year. And since that number is a little dated, it's probably safe to say there are more than 100,000 people employed in and around the solar industry right now.

There are even manufacturing plants going up in the U.S. to meet growing demand. First Solar (NAS: FSLR) is building a module facility in Arizona to expand U.S. capacity. And startups like SoloPower are among the companies to get Department of Energy loan guarantees to build manufacturing facilities (click here for my thoughts on manufacturing loan guarantees, and see who's doing it here).

Whether it's due to market conditions, U.S. innovation, or government support, the bottom line is that the U.S. is a solar power, one that is big enough to export product.

Turning the tables on China
With Chinese companies like LDK Solar (NYS: LDK) , JA Solar (NAS: JASO) , and ReneSola (NYS: SOL) adding capacity like crazy, who would have thought the U.S. would be a big exporter of solar products?

But that's exactly what has happened.

GT Solar (NAS: GTAT) is helping drive exports, which are dominated by PV polysilicon feedstock and capital equipment, GT's bread and butter. These products contributed $3.9 billion of the $5.6 billion in total exports during 2010.

We did import $3.7 billion of PV products, dominated by complete modules, but the net exports of $1.9 billion should come as a surprise to some observers.

The export boom may not last as demand in the U.S. picks up from developments, both large and small, looking for solar modules. But what is apparent is that the solar industry is one of the few bright spots in the economy.

Politicians get it right
In a positive sign for the future, some prominent political figures are starting to put their weight behind solar power. California Governor Jerry Brown thinks solar could be his state's growth engine in the future. He recently said, "Sun is for California what oil is for Texas. And we have a hell of a lot more sun than they have oil."

The military also views renewable energy, and solar power in particular, as a way to keep soldiers safer and energy secure. The U.S. Army intends to get 25% of its power from renewables by 2025, an initiative that will cost $7.1 billion.

With the solar industry now providing a respectable number of jobs and one of the few areas of growth, it may be politically popular to jump on the solar bandwagon. Welcome one and all!

Foolish bottom line
The U.S. has the power to be the solar industry's driving force for years to come if the political and economic will persists. As costs fall for manufacturers, power becomes cheaper for customers and it will be an unstoppable spiral of growth for the industry.

I've advocated sticking with industry leaders like First Solar and SunPower for over a year, and that's proven to be the safest place to invest. If you must send your investing dollars to China, Trina Solar (NYS: TSL) and Yingli Green Energy (NYS: YGE) provide some protection that riskier companies like LDK and JA Solar can't give.

No matter whom you pick, whether it's a U.S. manufacturer or buyer of U.S. equipment, it's nice to know that the solar industry is one of the few bright spots in the economy. A spot this Fool only expects to get brighter with time.

Interested in reading more about solar power? Add your favorite stocks to My Watchlist, and My Watchlist will find all of our Foolish analysis on those stocks.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Travis Hoium owns shares of First Solar, LDK Solar and SunPower, and has sold puts in SunPower. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw.Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of First Solar. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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