Can we restore U.S. leadership in solar manufacturing?

The United States created the solar cell industry and literally launched it into space 50 years ago.   Solar PV is going to be one of the largest job-creating industries of the century, projected to grow “from a $20 billion industry in 2007 to $74 billion by 2017” (see “Invented here, sold there”).

Graph illustrating the relative portion the United States has contributed to annual world productionBut thanks to conservative opposition to clean energy from Reagan to the Gingrich Congress to Cheney/Bush, the U.S. share of the PV market has plummeted.  By 2008, America had under 6% (!) of the world market (see AllBusiness’s “United States is a bit player in global solar industry“).

Now the Department of Energy is taking steps to improve the domestic manufacturing base, as guest blogger Jacob Abraham, an intern with CAP’s Energy Opportunity team, reports.

dow-solar-shingles-powerhouseBusinesses are stepping up to the plate to harness the economic opportunity that solar photovoltaics (PV) offer.  The Department of Energy reports that four new solar manufacturing plants are making their way to states around the country.  New solar manufacturing facilities will bring both jobs and solar power to Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Oregon.

Dow Chemical Company launched its solar project in Midland, Michigan earlier this month to launch its first full-scale Powerhouse solar shingle facility, which will help homeowners reduce electricity costs and green their homes using innovative solar shingles.  Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) just announced that it will award Dow Chemical $61.3 million in tax credits over 15 years to be used in a variety of projects.  Dow’s expansion into Michigan will create over 6,900 new jobs, and the increased funding will allow Dow to move the project up to full scale plant.  Governor Jennifer Granholm praised the clean-energy explosion:

We have worked hard to make Michigan the clean-energy capital of North America and focused our initiatives to grow these industries here.  Dow’s decisions to locate these facilities here demonstrate that our investments in green, clean-energy manufacturing are creating jobs and helping Michigan transition to a new 21st century economy.

The Arizona project, estimated to create between 30 and 120 MW of solar power per year and employ local residents of Goodyear, Arizona, is actually funded by the Chinese company Suntech Power, the world’s largest manufacturer of crystalline silicon PV modules.  Mayor Jan Brewer applauds the new plant as a crucial step toward making Arizona a leader in the clean energy economy:

I commend the company for choosing Goodyear as the site for its solar manufacturing operation.  I am very serious about establishing Arizona as a leader in the renewable energy sector — we offer a strategic location with a highly skilled workforce, low payroll taxes, and, now, the right incentive program to make business sense.

Other states, too, will gain new capacities as a result of new business incentives.  Heliosphera US plans to build a thin-film solar plant in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard using a $49 million incentive package of loans and grants provided by the State of Pennsylvania.  In Oregon, SolarWorld is bringing a new solar module assembly line to its manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, Oregon increasing the plant size 210,000-square-foot building, with the capacity to produce 350 MW of solar modules per year

These manufacturing plants come just as Obama’s Savannah speech on Tuesday promoting HOMESTAR, a program designed to incentivize home retrofitting, government funding for investment in renewables.  Just as hopes for home energy efficiency are on the upswing after President, Americans will soon be able to use products such as Dow’s Powerhouse solar shingles to retrofit their roofs, increase their energy efficiency, and cut energy costs.

With solar giants like eSolar making deals with Google, China, and the German company Ferrostaal, the industry’s capacity is growing rapidly.  Additional U.S. companies need to step up and invest, or risk being left behind. Many states and individual Americans have found ways to integrate solar power into their energy systems, and now it’s time for businesses to do the same.

JR: Ultimately, of course, The only way to win the clean energy race is to pass the clean energy bill.  As Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said earlier this year, “Every day that we delay trying to find a price for carbon is a day that China uses to dominate the green economy.”

Related Posts:

16 Responses to Can we restore U.S. leadership in solar manufacturing?

  1. fj2 says:

    Of course we can. Another important talking point on why we should be moving on this immediately.

  2. david freeman says:

    Excellent post. A person, or politician, shouldn’t even have to believe the facts of climate change to recognise that much of what we need to do can be justified by economic benefits alone. Unfortunately deniers let the same emotions that blind them to climate change blind them to our best economic interests as well.

  3. Leland Palmer says:

    Yah, we are still the world’s R&D leader, and the world’s academic leader, I think, although China and India are coming on strong, of course.

    The main problem appears to be that capital is controlled to a large degree by our Eastern financial establishment – Wall Street – and Wall Street is still reluctant to fund alternative energy. This may be because Big Oil and Big Coal have for a century been at the heart of revenue generation for Wall Street.

    So, we have the academic leadership, and the inventiveness, but the financing has been lacking. And of course the ExxonMobil funded paid denier network including the Heritage Foundation continues to put out deceptive information, that adds confusion to the issue politically and economically.

    The Senate version of the Cap and Trade legislation contained funding for an alternative energy bank, and this is badly needed. But Wall Street and the immensely rich fossil fuel corporations and their super rich stockholders need to step up to the plate, too.

    Wall Street has acted very badly, and has been rewarded for it by the Wall Street bailouts. Are they capable of good behavior? If not, perhaps big chunks of Wall Street should be nationalized.

  4. mike roddy says:

    Two of the most innovative firms are thin film PV companies First Solar in Arizona and Unisolar in Michigan, which are both ahead of the global pack. We won’t get punished for lack of manufacturing infrastructure if these and other capital starved solar firms are given the capacity to expand, but we’d better start acting soon, or they’ll be bought by overseas companies and governments.

    Leland Palmer, I agree, and can offer my opinion about why Wall Street doesn’t like renewables, and why they prefer fossil fuels: There is now a tremendous amount of wealth held by the top 1% of our population, far more than 30 years ago. These people don’t like to work, and have become lazy, physically and mentally. This means that their income from investments is sacred. All they care about is that annual return, so they can go to Paris and stay at the Ritz when they feel like it, or upgrade their Gulfstreams. They also wield enormous political power, no matter which party is in charge.

    Oil and gas companies are practically the only safe investments left- look what happened to the auto, banking, homebuilding, and steel companies, which used to be called “blue chip” (more like brown globs now). Their investment counselors love the appreciation and dividends from fossil fuel companies, which are extremely low risk cash machines. The risk/reward ratio of basic financing for large scale renewable plant infrastructure is risky on two levels: the winners haven’t been picked yet, and project and plant financing- as opposed to venture capital- has high cash requirements, relatively low returns, and substantial risk.

    Governments in Germany and China know this, and support renewable firms accordingly. Chu made a very significant move in funding the $1.3 billion Brightsource Ivanpah plant. Whether the will is there for renewables on the scale necessary- as it is for the entrenched nuclear industry, which has snatched $54 billion in loan guarantees- remains to be seen. Nuclear is a loser in every respect, but lobbyists and socialized risk, as well as established firm political representation, make them big players.

    We desperately need leadership. More Congressmen and Senators need to wake up, which would include reading this blog.

  5. Leif says:

    Well President Obama, you campaigned for the job, it is past time to step into the ring, take the bull by the horns and show your stuff.

    Pearl Harbor attack cost America 2,403 lives. In three months the Nation transformed itself, produced zero automobiles, rationed gas, and was soon capable of producing a liberty ship every three days. Industry and the economy did quite well and factoring out the lives lost so did the nation, both short and long term. Ushering in the largest economic boom the world has ever experienced.

    In 2008 alone, the United states lost 568 folks to weather related causes and over 30,322 million dollars in property and crop lose. World wide those numbers are much higher and sure to climb.

    So what is the cry? Don’t do anything to harm the economy. What a crock of excrement. What those folks are really saying is “don’t do anything to harm MY economy!” Those industries and lackeys, EXXON, Inhofe,+++, care not one iota for the future of the Nation, it’s people, or the well-being of humanity and the life support systems of the Earth. Their actions and rhetoric have clearly shown that to be true.


    Fist held high,
    Gray Panther

  6. Ken Johnson says:

    Joe – Re “The only way to win the clean energy race is to pass the clean energy bill.”: Another way would be to employ feed-in tariffs, as Europe and China are doing, which can create price incentives for new renewables far greater (e.g. by a factor of ten) than anything contemplated in the U.S. federal legislation. It could be possible to immediately impose carbon fees of order $100/ton on coal power, and provide commensurate price incentives for renewables, if the fees and subsidies are initially focused only on new sources.

  7. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Is Shi Zhengrong the main supporter of the Cato and Heritage Foundations?

  8. Patrick says: has very compelling lists of the groups who say that the danger of human-caused climate change is a FACT and of the groups who say that it is a FRAUD:

    Should not lists like these be enjoying much, much more emphasis and prominence?

  9. joe1347 says:

    You might want to also mention that quite a bit of US solar cell (silicon) manufacturing has recently collapsed.

    Some examples that come to mind. GE just shut down their solar cell manufacturing line in Newark, DE a few months ago. I seem to remember on the Gunther Portfolio that Blue Square Energy in Maryland is down to a only few employees. Advent Solar in New Mexico collapsed recently. Also, BP Solar recently cancelled their expansion plans in Frederick, MD.

    Other trends of note, A French company (Areva) recently purchased Ausra a US-based Solar thermal company.

    Shouldn’t solar energy be a ‘growing’ industry in the USA instead of one that’s either collapsing or becoming foreign dominated. If you’re a bright science or engineering student (and a US Citizen), why should you even consider an alternative energy career? You’ve have better luck with Lockheed. Granted, First Solar and a few others are doing fine. But how many jobs in the USA are they generating in reality? Just a handful.

  10. paulm says:

    I think we ned to move past these ideas based on growth growth growth win win win and start to concentrate as a race on sustainability and survival as an advance society.

    For instant, countries should now be concentrating on developing and implementing solutions and products on a regional basis. Globalization is not sustainable currently and in the foreseeable future.

  11. Jeff Huggins says:

    As Time Passes By

    “… and the educational systems of developed countries have a responsibility to prepare engineers for the inevitable task of switching from nonrenewable to renewable energy sources.”

    From the book, “Principles of Solar Engineering”, by Frank Kreith and Jan F. Kreider, 1978.

    Yes, that was 1978! And here we are, over thirty years later!

    Who is responsible?


  12. Chris Dudley says:

    Mike (#3) has put his finger on it. The US has a leadership role at the cutting edge. Thin film shops like FirstSolar and NanoSolar lead the world. And it should be remembered that we lost the lead in silicon to Japan, not China. China is just showing how rapidly the market can expand. But, most residential solar, where most of the roof space is, will be silicon so China is making as smart move.

  13. Dan B says:

    My uncle Bill “Burns” Collier headed up the (Aero)space program for Goodrich. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas we were baffled and dumbfounded by the technologies that were laid out before the table was set. He’s still kicking around, retired to the Collier ranch in Arkansas, probably still Republican to the core.

    He took the space suit program for Apollo into the 20th century. It had been tank-like suits, jointed and rigid, and utilized Mylar and many other advances.

    We can update our energy production to the 21st Century by leapfrogging the intermediate steps or we can “go incremental”.

    Fossil fuels will fight their extinction.

    What else is their to know, except the demise or positive transformation of humanity to a 21st Century Energy economy?

  14. Phil says:

    Oil has to a large extent defined US domestic and foreign policy. As several commentors point out America has a huge strategic investment in oil and fossil fuels built up over a century to the worlds pre-eminent oil controller and consumer.

    There is no way the entrenchment of wealth and power in the US is going to be changed overnight. There are too many dollars invested in the ground and too much profit to be made pulling oil out of it. The 6% figure is an accurate reflection of the retarding nature of big oil and its hold on the US. Countries who are not hooked on oil can invest in new technology without legacy worries.

    I must say I agree with the comment about the cult of growth. Some societies will adapt to a sustainability culture more easily than others though.