Renewable energy and the new green economy are being praised for their economic development potential in the U.S. and are a key component of the stimulus act. There has been growing concern however that this opportunity is slipping away. Over the last five years, the trade deficit between the U.S. and China for renewable energy products grew by a staggering 1400 percent to $5.7 billion. This can be worrisome, as manufacturing offers one of the greatest employment opportunities in renewable energy, representing 70 to 75 percent of the jobs in this sector .
I recently interviewed Stephanie Burns, president and CEO of Dow Corning, to hear her insights on the topic.
Sarah Lozanova: What are some of the biggest challenges in creating clean manufacturing jobs in the U.S.?
Stephanie Burns: Our challenge is to take advantage of the momentum created by the manufacturing tax credit and, by all means, make it permanent, remove the cap or re-establish the funding. It enabled many companies to develop new manufacturing facilities for renewable components, but that is only one piece of the puzzle.
The next challenge will be to stimulate the commercial demand for solar and other renewable technologies through a reasonable federal Renewable Electricity Standard, as well as interconnection and net metering standards.
Increasing demand for residential, commercial and utility-scale solar would accomplish many benefits:
- First, it would create more manufacturing jobs in the U.S. to meet demand. Today, we have the beginning of the supply chain and the installers on the other end. We need the demand to spike in the U.S., thereby attracting the entire breadth of the solar supply chain to this country. Estimates from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and other groups have projected that hundreds of thousands of jobs that are being created in other countries could be established here, just to meet potential domestic demand.
- Secondly, an increased adoption of clean energy options would mean we are less dependent on non-renewable resources and creating environmentally healthy energy alternatives.
- Third, demand would stimulate innovation and next generation applications in the U.S. for renewable technologies – there are many different technology paths, for instance, to creating a solar device. Innovations will occur to meet market demand.
SL: China is now the leading producer of both solar panels and wind turbines. For many years, Germany and Japan were the world’s leading suppliers of all things solar. Despite the U.S. having once been the first global solar energy leader, and given the recent emphasis on this industry by federal policy makers, why does the U.S. lag behind?
SB: Other countries have been effective in creating policies and incentives that work together to rapidly scale-up the industry.
Similarly, Dow Corning supports a multifaceted public policy approach to developing a diverse energy portfolio, and believes that American solar power sits at the center of a comprehensive national strategy for securing America’s energy independence.
We believe that investing in solar and other renewable energy technologies will help bolster America’s international competitiveness and reinvigorate its economy by strengthening the manufacturing sector and creating new, green jobs.
And, my company is doing just that. Dow Corning has announced investments in the past five years of more than $5 billion in U.S. manufacturing operations for solar – in both traditional and newer technologies. We also are investing in the research and development of materials that improve the performance and cost efficiency of solar cells and modules.
A major part of that investment is facilities expansions of Hemlock Semiconductor Group, a majority-owned Dow Corning joint venture, to increase its output of polycrystalline silicon, an essential building block for solar energy creation. Expanding our facility in Michigan and building a new facility in Tennessee will create more than 1,800 construction jobs and, ultimately, 1,200 permanent, full-time jobs.
SL: What are some of the best strategies to boost domestic manufacturing growth of renewable energy products?
SB: We have developed a four point policy plan that we hope can serve as a useful roadmap for federal decision makers as they address the energy, environmental, security and economic challenges facing the United States through the adoption of public policy.
When combined, our recommendations can help spur growth of the solar industry as a whole, increase U.S. manufacturing capacity, and propel America into being a 21st Century solar power leader:
- Goal #1: Establish a broad federal legislative and regulatory package, designed to encourage the rapid growth of a viable renewable energy industry and encourage consumer adoption.
- Goal #2: Increase investments in research and development to support innovation in solar energy technologies.
- Goal #3: Further invest in renewable energy-related education, training and job creation.
- Goal #4: The federal government must lead by example in the implementation of clean technologies.
SL: What are some of the advantages of manufacturing clean energy products domestically as opposed to importing them?
SB: The benefits of a domestic clean-energy revolution can have astonishing implications – it has the potential to create millions of jobs nationwide, achieve greater energy security by placing us firmly on a path toward energy independence, regenerate U.S. international competitiveness, and help address environmental issues.
To fully realize the promise of this economic, employment, energy and environmental opportunity, advancing a “green” economy must be a national priority – and quickly. America’s energy transformation is inexorably linked to our nation’s economic and manufacturing future. This will require the commitment, innovation, and teamwork from government, industry and educators.
We need to land these manufacturing jobs here, while the industry is in a growth phase, or it will be too late to establish the domestic investments and the jobs that come along with that. Otherwise, we will have no choice but to import those products.
Photo Credit: Dow Corning (upper photo), Dow Chemical (lower photo)
Sarah Lozanova is passionate about the new green economy and is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Energy International Quarterly, ThinkGreen.com, Triple Pundit, Green Business Quarterly, Renewable Energy World, and Green Business Quarterly. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and is a co-founder of Trees Across the Miles, an urban reforestation initiative.