Sunny forecast for solar energy shines light on jobs
By Steven Mufson
THE WASHINGTON POST
The top of a large steel vat gently swings open, and a slab of silicon, cut into pieces the size of large bricks, is lifted onto a conveyor belt.
On a mezzanine above the warehouse-style floor of the factory in Frederick, Md., Bill Good is monitoring the six-foot furnaces that melt the silicon that goes into bricks, which are later sliced into wafers and turned into solar panels in a building next door.
Good, 53, used to work in a landscaping business, but like many people around the country he has found work in the alternative-energy industry. After two years, he said, “I could retire here.”
That’s the sort of job certainty many workers would envy. Growth in the solar, wind power and biofuel sectors has been fast and promises to be enduring. Last week, BP PLC’s solar division announced a $70 million plan to double the capacity of the Frederick factory and hire 70 more people.
“The demand for solar energy is so strong, not only in the United States but around the world, that we have to keep up,” said Lee Edwards, chief executive of BP Solar. Advertisement
Many boosters of solar, wind and biofuels have tried to sell them as pieces of a new American economy, but these nascent industries rely on many of the
same skills and materials as the old American economy – and that’s good for people looking for jobs.
The wind turbines installed by Madison Gas and Electric Co. in Wisconsin, for example, were placed on towers that weigh 73 1/2 tons, mostly made of steel. They were built in Shreveport, La. Wind turbines also use components common in many endangered U.S. industries, such as gearboxes, rotors, control systems, disc brakes, yaw motors and drives, and bearings.
“What we need are policies that advance the climate for investment in these products,” said Marco Trbovich, communications director for the United
Steelworkers of America.
The ethanol sector has been adding jobs, too. In August, U.S. refineries produced 27 percent more ethanol than a year earlier, and 48 distilleries are under construction. Meanwhile, the solar industry has about 20,000 jobs nationwide, said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. That’s a small number, but Resch said it is growing by 35 percent a year.
MEMC Electronic Materials Inc. of St. Peters, which manufactures silicon wafers, has been working to expand sales in the solar energy market. Last month it entered into a 10-year agreement with Gintech Energy Corp. of Taiwan to supply solar-grade silicon wafers. Under the deal, MEMC expects to receive between $2.5 billion and $3 billion in revenue.
Boosters of solar, wind power and biofuels have been pleading for more government support in the form of purchases, targets, import limits,
subsidies and tax breaks for alternative energy.
The Apollo Alliance – a group of environmentalists, alternate energy companies and unions – said in a 2004 report that a $30 billion federal program could create 3.3 million jobs over 10 years.
That sort of spending isn’t likely, so the report’s optimistic forecast won’t be tested. But many governors and mayors are realizing that fostering renewable energy can be good for their states and cities.
Many of the jobs are good ones, in contrast to the low-wage food-service jobs that have bolstered employment statistics without improving quality of life for the people who hold them.
“You’re producing high-quality manufacturing jobs when others are moving out of the United States,” Resch said. “If you look at the next high-tech growth
industry in the United States, it can and should be solar energy.”
Jigar Shah, 32, started a solar installation and financing company, Sun Edison LLC, in the basement of his Washington home in 2003. Now he employs 150 people.
Shah gets stores, warehouses and factories to let him buy, install and maintain solar panels on their roofs and he gives them 10- to 20-year contracts for energy with set prices. That way companies don’t need to make the initial investment for the panels, whose payback periods can be long.
One of Sun Edison’s first customers was a Whole Foods Market in Edgewater, N.J. With backing from Goldman Sachs & Co., Shah bought solar panels and
installed them on the store’s roof.
When the panels were installed in January 2004, Whole Foods was paying about 1 percent less than utility rates for electricity. But rates since have soared and now the store’s power costs about 20 percent less than the electricity sold by the local utility, a bonus for its effort to promote an environmentalist image.
BP acquired a half-interest in the Frederick plant when it bought Amoco Corp. in 1999; it bought the rest from Enron Corp. Now it has about 15 percent of the U.S. solar market, BP’s Edwards said last week.
As he spoke in the plant’s control room, silicon wafers in another part of the plant were being cleaned, polished, stamped with silver wires, backed with aluminum, hooked together and placed under protective glass. To check their durability, some panels were tested in machines that simulate harsh weather – extreme cold or heat, high humidity and one-inch hailstones traveling at 52 mph.
If they last as long as planned, solar panels might become competitive without government subsidies. Edwards said that every time industry
capacity doubles, the cost of panels falls about 20 percent.
Article courtesy of Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition