Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why Evergreen Solar went to China and what should be done about it

Last week we learned that a solar energy plant in Massachusetts will shut down and move operations to China, throwing 800 people out of work.

Since then there's been a lot of commentary about why Evergreen Solar's venture here failed, despite $58 million in taxpayer subsidies. The execrable Michelle Malkin, for example, writes
The myth that “green jobs” are a boon to the economy keeps getting pierced by failed green jobs boondoggle after failed green jobs boondoggle.
(Note: Malkin got a big break in journalism when a think tank funded by oil interests and billionaires like David Koch, awarded her a fellowship.) People who actually know something about manufacturing solar panels complain about such trite and lazy commentary. From Eschaton we learn the reason Evergreen left Massachusetts:
...the greater degree of financial support (not even counting the managed float of the RMB) is more important by a factor of 2-4 in the lower cost of Chinese PV modules, rather than labor costs or environmental regs, so it isn't inevitable that US manufacturing can't compete. First Solar is proving that pretty well, and the Chinese firm Suntech is opening US manufacturing now...
Richard Kauffman (who knows something about renewable energy finance, since he teaches it at the Yale School of Management) agrees that the Chinese government's financial support for renewable energy companies explains Evergreen's departure. In the Huffington Post, he writes,
...the bigger advantage that Chinese players enjoy is...access to a wide range of financing. A large part of the reduction in solar prices have stemmed from a significant expansion of polysilicon production in China. These types of large construction projects with uncertain off-takes would be difficult to get financed in the U.S.; Chinese banks fund them readily....We simply do not have a financing system in the U.S. that is up to the task.
Kauffman also argues that we need to develop a domestic market for renewable energy. The U.S. solar industry has been growing, he writes, mostly because of state initiatives.
Federal policy still emphasizes innovation over deployment. Sadly, this approach creates dozens of companies developing new technologies vainly hoping they can survive the "Valley of Death" until they can reduce costs enough to gain enough scale, while Chinese companies use scale of "good enough" technologies to lower costs faster.
Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post agrees that we need to take a page from China's playbook to prevent more Evergreen Solars from moving to China. Pearlstein write,
Subsidies and directed credit for local companies, buy-American provisions for government agencies and government contractors, currency manipulation, the rules on "conditional market access" and "indigenous innovation" - surely China could hardly complain if we were to pay them the highest compliment by embracing their economic model. 
And if they do complain, so what?