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Silicon Valley & the Rust Belt – One Solution to Two Problems

While the solar industry continues to grow, it has faced serious obstacles to large-scale adoption. Obviously, given the current economic climate, financing is still a major hurdle. Still, a lingering issue from before the economic collapse is scalability -- the U.S. still lacks the facilities needed to churn out solar systems on a nation-wide scale.

As it turns out, the automobile industry holds a tremendous opportunity for the solar industry to overcome this issue. While solar companies scramble to create new manufacturing facilities, old auto-manufacturing plants lay dormant — along with many out of work Americans. Couldn’t the solar industry, with tremendous opportunity but limited scale, and the auto-industry, with dwindling demand and a wealth of facilities and skilled labor, find a mutual solution to these problems?

We’ve already seen efforts from the federal government to tackle energy independence and the faltering automobile industry linked. Take the Cash for Clunkers program, which was designed to encourage new purchases of fuel-efficient cars and breathe life into the auto industry. Furthermore, here at Skyline, we announced last October that we were entering into a partnership with Cosma, a global auto-manufacturing supplier, to manufacture large portions of our system.  Other solar technologies such as concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) can also directly leverage the metal forming capabilities of the auto industry.

By utilizing existing and dormant manufacturing facilities, we can accelerate solar adoption while preserving and creating American jobs, and reducing the carbon footprint associated with this growth. While small endeavors like these may come about independently, the U.S. can play a key role in accelerating this movement on a national scale.

The Greenest Path Forward

Solar energy has the potential to provide limitless energy without consuming fossil fuels or harming the environment. However, we must not overlook the fact that to generate solar power on a massive scale, we will undoubtedly create waste through manufacturing and shipment of these products. To truly “go green,” we must not only consider the energy and products we use, but also where they came from. Building new facilities to create solar systems is not an ideal solution from an environmental perspective.

Coincidentally, considering the total “footprint” of solar manufacturing will help us accelerate solar adoption further. There are major, time-consuming hurdles to overcome in order to establish a manufacturing process. For instance, Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), a necessary step when building a new manufacturing facility, can take one to several years to complete. It would make more sense to utilize already standing facilities, such as abandoned and underutilized auto-manufacturing plants, to ramp up production quickly and efficiently.

Keeping America’s Green Jobs

Two regions hit hard by the automobile industry’s decline, the South and the Rust Belt, are in need of a new approach. In fact, throughout the country there are examples of facilities and workers in similar circumstances. Here in the Bay Area, the recently closed NUMMI auto shop in Fremont has a capacity of 420,000 vehicles, but is laying dormant. This facility, and its previous employees, could be creating fuel-efficient cars, or even solar systems.

One plant attempting to revive the auto-manufacturing industry is the V Vehicles plant in Monroe, Louisiana announced in June 2009. The V Vehicles plant, which was previously defunct, is now developing electric vehicles and should create about 1,400 jobs in the area. This is a great example of this concept in action.

Policy is the Key

The solar energy boom has promised to bring new and rewarding “green collar” jobs to American workers. However, as manufacturers in China continue to provide solar cells at a fraction of the cost of their American counterparts, we are at risk of losing many of these potential jobs in America. We must turn to our legislators and level the playing field, to keep American manufacturers cost competitive, and preserve and create jobs throughout the country.

In many ways, Europe showed the world what national governments could do to promote renewable energy adoption. Many European countries sought to rapidly adopt solar energy through aggressive incentive programs. Germany, the poster child of solar legislation, went even farther and also created legislation to maintain and create domestic manufacturing jobs. Germany provided a 50 percent subsidy for any company that manufactured its solar products domestically. This program helped Germany maintain manufacturing jobs within its border and become an exporter of solar products.

The DOE Loan Guarantee program is a great example of how the U.S. can maintain jobs with legislation. In 2008 and 2009, a significant factor in fund allotment was U.S. jobs created and the energy used to create and maintain manufacturing facilities. This is a great start to promoting jobs and retooling existing facilities in the U.S.

The Solar Manufacturing Jobs Creation Act, another example of this type of legislation, would make equipment and facilities used to manufacture renewable energy products eligible under the investment tax credit (ITC). Again, this is a great start, but specifically promoting existing facilities is still the fastest and most effective way to get solar off the ground.

In this economic climate, nothing matters more than the bottom line, and installers are going to choose with their pocketbooks. The U.S. government has an opportunity to help American manufacturers diversify into a growing global market, and therefore maintain these manufacturing jobs.

Conclusion

To those of us in the solar industry, more facilities and quicker time to market is obviously a plus. However, the U.S. government and auto industry have a unique opportunity as well — with solar’s staggering growth opportunity, we can begin to rebuild the fallen automobile industry and get America running again.

Bob MacDonald, Ph.D., CEO of Skyline Solar, is a solar industry veteran, most recently a senior executive at SolFocus. Bob has worked closely with policy makers and helped drafted legislation he believes can promote solar adoption while resuscitating the auto manufacturing industry. Bob holds a B.S.E.E. from Brown University, M.S.E.E. from Stanford University, and M.S. and Ph.D. in Physics from Brown University.

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