If any interested party — a presidential candidate, say — wants an inspirational example of how the United States economy needs to transform in the 21st century, then Richmond, California is a good place to start. This working-class city on the north shore of San Francisco Bay is home to an historic former Ford Motor assembly plant, designed in 1930 by renowned architect Albert Kahn. This 500,000 sq. ft. facility cranked out thousands of vehicles for a quarter-century, becoming an icon of American manufacturing prowess.
But that’s not how its real history was made. In 1942, the plant, like hundreds of others across the country, was completely overhauled for military production during World War II. Instead of making Fords for American consumers, the factory was renamed the Richmond Tank Depot and assembled 49,000 military jeeps and processed or finished some 91,000 tanks, armored personnel carriers and other combat vehicles in the next three years. The National Park Service later chose this site, along with adjacent shipyards, for the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park to honor the women who worked the assembly lines in that legendary industrial effort.
In 2008, the United States faces a different kind of national challenge, less visible but arguably no less urgent than the one posed by Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. It’s the challenge of a rapidly changing global economy, a worldwide climate crisis, and oil — at $130 a barrel and rising — being largely controlled by less than friendly (and sometimes terrorist-funding) regimes across the globe. Earlier this year, the renovated Ford plant in Richmond became the new home of a clean tech leader: the PowerLight division of SunPower, which assembles and installs some of the largest solar PV deployments in the world.
I love the symbolism here. Many have cited both the Manhattan Project and the Apollo space program as models for the needed U.S. effort to dramatically ramp up clean tech development, manufacturing and job creation as the next big engine of our economic growth. But my preferred model is America’s World War II manufacturing effort, for its scale and its mind-blowing success in a very short time frame. It reminds us what the U.S. is capable of, with the right political leadership and national will.
Not to belittle the success of the Manhattan and Apollo programs, but they were essentially based upon scientific breakthroughs and involved a relatively small number of top scientists and government contractors. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home-front war effort called for the massive retooling of most of the country’s manufacturing production from coast to coast. Ford, General Motors, Grumman, and dozens of other industrial giants essentially overhauled their product lines in a matter of months — while at the same time training new workers (the Rosie the Riveters and many others) to replace men departed to the front lines in Europe, Africa and the Pacific. It was a transformation unparalleled in modern industrial history, and a significant part of what’s now known as “the greatest generation.”
Fast forward to 2008. The value of our dollar is low, our gas prices are high, we’ve lost thousands of jobs to China, India, Mexico and other countries and polls say more than 70 percent of us believe our nation is “on the wrong track.” (For an excellent presentation of this current state of affairs, I recommend Fareed Zakaria’s current best seller The Post-American World).
Americans, and many American companies, are ready for a new call to action — a united, nationwide effort to make and deploy solar PV, wind turbines, cellulosic biofuels, advanced batteries, smart grid technologies, green building materials and dozens of other clean tech products and related services. The grassroots efforts are certainly there. The Apollo Alliance, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and many other groups are doing terrific work espousing green-collar jobs as the next great opportunity for unionized labor, low-income citizens and depressed local economies both urban and rural. Imagine what a full-blown, federally funded national effort, led by our next president and Congress could do.
I realize that 2008 is not 1942. It is a very different nation, one that in recent years has understandably become very cynical about new large-scale initiatives led by the feds. And the private sector would clearly have to have more control and leadership in such an effort than it did in FDR’s wartime America. But if the rewards of an economic overhaul focused on clean tech are presented well, I think it could work. The list of those rewards is an impressive one: well-paying jobs, a new national mission that polls say the public would support, reduced use of foreign oil, meaningful action and leadership on climate change, and a more secure future for our children and grandchildren.
Seeing a leading American solar energy provider set up shop where our World War II manufacturing effort once rolled is a good start. I bet Rosie the Riveter would be on board.
Clint Wilder is Clean Edge’s contributing editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the business section of The Huffington Post. E-mail him at email@example.com.