Archive for the ‘Clean Energy’ Category

Solyndra’s Fossil Fuel Cousins

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Republicans show no signs of relenting in their effort to exploit the bankruptcy filing of federally-backed solar equipment company Solyndra to delegitimize not only the Obama Administration’s renewable energy policies but the very concept of green jobs.

A key element of the campaign is the depiction of Obama as having a hippie-like preoccupation with wind and solar energy. What the Republicans conveniently ignore is that Obama hedged his bets. While running for the presidency and after taking office he also promoted non-flower-power forms of energy such as nuclear and coal. Much to the chagrin of his supporters in the environmental movement, Obama embraced the industry-contrived idea of “clean coal,” otherwise known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

It is widely forgotten that the 2009 Recovery Act (ARRA), now being vilified for appropriating funds for the loan guarantees given to Solyndra and other solar firms, also included a provision for subsidizing CCS projects. ARRA provided $3.4 billion for the Department of Energy’s Fossil Energy R&D Program. Of that amount, $1.52 billion was to support large-scale demonstration projects involving the capture of carbon emissions from industrial sources. “Stimulus Money Puts Clean Coal Projects on a Faster Track” was the headline of a March 2009 article in the New York Times.

The brave new era of CCS did not begin auspiciously. In August 2009 it was revealed that consultants working for an industry front group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity had forged letters from non-profit groups to members of Congress expressing opposition to a climate bill that was being considered at the time.

In October 2009 the Energy Department announced a set of modest-sized CCS grants to companies such as Archer Daniels Midland, ConocoPhillips and Shell Chemical. Two months later, DOE handed out a set of much larger grants totaling $979 million to American Electric Power Company, Southern Company and Summit Texas Clean Energy.

And in August 2010 the Energy Department awarded $1 billion in ARRA funds to a large CCS project operated by several companies under the name FutureGen Alliance. In a previous incarnation, FutureGen had been funded by the Bush Administration—largely to justify inaction on greenhouse gas emissions—but that money was cut off as the result of a cost study that later turned out to have a major math error.

So how has all this turned out? In July, the CCS movement was dealt a severe blow when American Electric Power announced that, despite the federal aid it was receiving, it would suspend work on its flagship Mountaineer carbon capture project in West Virginia. AEP said it based the decision on the weak economy and the uncertain status of climate policy.

Later that month, Bloomberg BusinessWeek published a report called “What’s Killing Carbon Capture,” which pointed out that the Mountaineer suspension was only one of a series of recent cancellations or postponements of CCS projects in the United States and other countries. Meanwhile, FutureGen 2.0 is years away from operation and may never justify the federal government’s huge investment.

In other words, renewables are not the only kind of energy alternatives that are in trouble. If Republicans want to use the Solyndra case to argue the failure of green job creation, they have to acknowledge that clean coal initiatives promoted by the fossil fuel sector are also going nowhere.

And if they really want to be honest, they would admit that the reasons for setbacks in wind and solar as well as in carbon capture go far beyond the handling of ARRA grants by the Obama Administration. The feeble economy presents a formidable obstacle for any new industry. A dysfunctional policy environment made even more toxic by the rise of climate change denialism creates even more turmoil for energy industry innovators, whether in the renewable or the CCS camp. It may also be the case that those innovators just don’t have a viable business plan.

Of course, the Administration’s critics are not going to concede any of this. Anti-green job demagoguery will be with us for some time to come.

The Risk of Green Offshoring

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

The United States may be indirectly subsidizing the movement of renewable-energy equipment production to low-wage havens such as China and India. That’s the finding of a new report just released by the Apollo Alliance and Good Jobs First. I co-authored the report in my capacity as the research director of Good Jobs First.

My responsibility was to analyze the recipients of Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credits, a component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The program, also known as 48C because of its place in the Internal Revenue Code, provides a tax credit equal to 30 percent of the value of investments in new, expanded or re-equipped facilities in the United States that produce materials used in renewable energy generation or carbon capture.

In January the Obama Administration released of list of 183 projects in 43 states that had been approved for the initial $2.3 billion round of credits. Obama’s new budget calls for expanding the program by $5 billion.

I focused on the 116 projects involving wind and solar, the two forms of renewable energy that have the most growth potential. Those projects received $1.6 billion, or 68 percent, of the total 48C credits. There are 90 unique parent companies involved (some firms have more than one project).

While the 48C projects themselves are all located in the U.S., many of the companies are also investing in wind and solar manufacturing facilities in other countries. This is not surprising, given that 25 of the 90 firms are based outside the United States, mostly in Europe and Scandinavia. They have operations in their home countries as well as other in developed economies.

What I examined, instead, was the extent to which both the U.S. and foreign 48C recipients are also expanding output in the low-wage countries we typically refer to in discussing offshoring. It turns out that a quarter of them are doing so.

Most of these are companies from places such as Germany and Spain that are leaders in the global clean-energy manufacturing market—the likes of Gamesa, Nordex, Siemens and Winergy. Thirteen foreign 48C recipients produce in China, three in India and two in Mexico. There are also six U.S.-based 48C recipients with operations in China, Mexico, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In total, the U.S. has awarded $458 million in advanced energy tax credits to 23 companies that are also investing money and creating jobs in low-wage nations.

One might argue that companies have to produce abroad in order to supply foreign markets, especially in a booming economy such as China. Yet I found that some of the 48C recipients have adopted a business model that relies heavily on low-wage production for serving global markets. Here are three examples:

Advanced Energy Industries Inc. (based in Colorado; received $1.2 million in 48C credits). In its most recent 10-K annual report, the company states: “The majority of our manufacturing is performed in Shenzhen, China, where we produce our high-volume products. The remainder of our manufacturing locations, in Fort Collins, Colorado; Hachioji, Japan; and Vancouver, Washington, perform low-volume manufacturing, service and support.”

First Solar Inc. (based in Arizona; received $16.3 million in 48C credits). In December 2009 the company announced plans for the addition of eight production lines for its solar module manufacturing operation in Kalim, Malaysia. The Malaysian operation was already more than ten times the size (in square footage) of First Solar’s original plant in Perrysburg, Ohio.

SunPower Corporation (based in California; received $10.8 million in 48C credits). Although 90 percent of SunPower’s sales come from the United States and Europe, it has been doing almost all of its manufacturing in Asia. It produces solar cells at two facilities in the Philippines and is developing a third solar cell manufacturing facility in Malaysia. Almost all of its solar cells are combined into solar panels at the company’s solar panel assembly facility in the Philippines. Other solar panels are manufactured for the company by a third-party subcontractor in China.

Given their preoccupation with offshoring, there is a significant risk that such firms will follow in the footsteps of Evergreen Solar, which is not on the 48C list but which received some $44 million in state subsidies for its plant in Devens, Massachusetts. In November 2009 the company announced that it would transfer its solar-panel assembly operations from Devens to a plant in China.

Using programs such as the Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit to try to encourage renewable-energy companies to invest in the United States is good policy. But does it make sense to include firms that have put their primary emphasis on offshoring and may be using their 48C projects as little more than fig leaves to obscure where they are putting the bulk of their money? Are U.S. taxpayers indirectly subsidizing those foreign operations?

At the very least, the Apollo Alliance/Good Jobs First report recommends, the federal government should employ a clawback mechanism so that any company that later shifts its 48C jobs offshore would have to reimburse the Treasury for the tax credit. We also need to explore other ways of making sure that workers in the United States and other developed countries are not denied a place in the clean-energy manufacturing sector of the future.

ARRA as a Corporate Rescue Plan

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

A war of words is raging over the impact of the Obama Administration’s $787 billion stimulus program, which is now one-year old. Conservative members of Congress are mounting a relentless assault on what they see as an abject failure, even as many of them unabashedly promote and at least implicitly take credit for individual American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) projects in their home districts.

Meanwhile, the office of Vice President Joe Biden has issued a report insisting that ARRA has created or saved 2 million jobs and has brought many states back from the brink of fiscal disaster. The stimulus effort, Biden insists, “is going well.”

The debate boils down to an age-old disagreement between those opposed to allegedly wasteful social spending and those who believe government has to reinforce the social safety net during a time of economic distress.

Both sides are ignoring the fact that ARRA, to a significant degree, is a rescue plan not just for unemployed workers and struggling state governments, but also for parts of corporate America. This goes far beyond the roughly $50 billion in business tax breaks that Republicans last year insisted be part of the plan.

The Recovery Act represents a big step in the direction of what was once called industrial policy. Billions of ARRA dollars are being used by the federal government to encourage the development of new industries in areas such as renewable energy and health information technology that are seen as the foundation of future economic growth. Billions more are being spent on traditional procurement contracts to boost private-sector activity.

Here are some examples of larger injections of ARRA funds going directly to the corporate sector:

ADVANCED ENERGY MANUFACTURING TAX CREDITS

Hemlock Semiconductor, a joint venture of Dow Corning (itself a joint venture of Dow Chemical and Corning Inc.) and two Japanese companies: $141 million for the production in Michigan of polycrystalline silicon used in solar panels.

Wacker Polysilicon North America LLC, a subsidiary of the German chemical company Wacker Chemie: $128 million for a plant in Tennessee that will produce polysilicon for solar cells.

United Technologies Corporation, the big military contractor: $110 million for new equipment at its Pratt & Whitney plants to help produce more energy-efficient jet engines.

Alstom, the big French power and transportation equipment firm: $63 million for a Tennessee facility that will produce the world’s largest steam turbines for nuclear power plants.

GRANTS FOR DEVELOPMENT OF ADVANCED BATTERIES FOR ELECTRIC VEHICLES

Johnson Controls: $299 million for work on nickel-cobalt-metal battery cells

A123 Systems Inc.: $249 million for work on nano-iron phosphate cathode powder and electrode coatings.

General Motors: $105 million for production of high-volume battery packs for the GM Volt.

“CLEAN” COAL POWER INITIATIVE

American Electric Power Company: $334 million for the development of a chilled ammonia process to capture CO2 at a power plant in West Virginia.

Southern Company Services: $295 million for the retrofitting of a CO2 capture installation at a coal-fired power plant in Alabama.

BROADBAND EXPANSION

ION HoldCo LLC, a partnership led by Sovernet Communications: a $39 million grant to expand fiber-optic broadband in rural areas of upstate New York.

Biddeford Internet Corp. (dba GWI): a $25 million grant to extend a fiber-optic network to rural and disadvantaged parts of Maine.

ENERGY LOAN GUARANTEES

Solyndra Inc.: a $535 million loan guarantee to support the construction of a commercial-scale manufacturing facility for cylindrical solar photovoltaic panels.

PROCUREMENT CONTRACTS

Lockheed Martin: $165 million to work on the crew vehicle for NASA’s Project Orion.

Clark Construction Group: $152 million to design and build a new headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard in Washington, DC.

General Motors: $104 million to supply light trucks, station wagons and alternative fuel vehicles to the General Services Administration.

GlaxoSmithKline: $62 million from the Department of Health and Human Services to do research on the H1N1 flu vaccine.

To this list can be added the thousands of contracts that states have awarded to private companies to carry out ARRA-funded activities such as highway repair, school construction and environmental remediation.

It is surprising that there has been so little debate on the relative merits of all these projects and programs – as well as on the wisdom of providing direct subsidies to profit-making entities. Are these grants, contracts, tax credits and loan guarantees a smart investment in the future or nothing more than business boondoggles?

With a significant portion of the Recovery Act going to aid corporations, we also have a right to ask why they are not creating more jobs with the taxpayer funds they have received. It would also be helpful to know – though the limitations of ARRA data collection make this difficult – how good are the jobs that have been created (in terms of wages and benefits) and whether those jobs are being equitably distributed among different portions of the population.

If we are ever going to reach any meaningful conclusions about the whole stimulus endeavor, we’ve got to go beyond tired debates about Big Government versus the Free Market. Like the bailout of the banks and the auto companies, ARRA is changing the relationship between the public and private sectors. Now we need to know whether the new arrangement is working and who is reaping the benefits.

Can the Redlining of U.S. Workers Be Stopped?

Friday, November 20th, 2009

wind turbineWe’re meant to believe that corporations make their investment decisions based on carefully considered financial and competitive considerations. Yet a recent announcement by a Chinese manufacturer of turbines for wind energy shows how political pressure can quickly change business priorities.

In late October the company, A-Power Energy Generation Systems, announced that it had been chosen to supply some 240 turbines for a large wind farm planned for Texas. That would have been just another in a long series of manufacturing-goes-to-China stories, but for reports that the group launching the $1.5 billion project—a joint venture of China’s Shenyang Power, Texas-based Cielo Wind Power and private equity firm U.S. Renewable Energy Group—was intending to take advantage of U.S. government funding through the Recovery Act.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer raised a stink about this in an open letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, highlighting reports that while the Texas wind farm would create a modest number of local jobs, the much bigger employment impact—2,000 to 3,000 jobs—would be felt at A-Power’s factories in China.

The ensuing uproar—with protests coming from figures as divergent as Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard and rightwing Missouri Senator Kit Bond—got the joint venture’s attention. While not abandoning the plan to import turbines for the Texas wind farm, A-Power and U.S. Renewable Energy Group announced on November 17 that they would construct a new wind turbine factory in the United States with a workforce of about 1,000.

That’s good news for the job-starved American economy, but all the attention given to A-Power has obscured a set of larger problems concerning the U.S. renewable energy industry.

The first is that the operation of facilities such as wind farms does not generate much employment—once built, they basically run themselves. The real employment potential is in manufacturing the turbines and other components used to generate wind and solar energy.

The disturbing fact is that, with the exception of General Electric, large U.S. companies have shown little interest in domestic production of these components. This has created an opening for foreign firms such as Gamesa (from Spain), Vestas (Denmark), Siemens (Germany) and Sanyo (Japan) to capture a large share of U.S. production of wind and solar components. Over the past few years they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in plants from Pennsylvania to Oregon—and have often received lavish state and local economic development subsidies for doing so.

Unfortunately, the economic crisis has taken its toll on this sector, and expansion plans are being curtailed or postponed. For example, wind turbine maker Vestas, which has invested heavily in Colorado and planned to boost its workforce in that state to 2,500, recently said it would slow its pace of hiring.

To make matters worse, some of the newer U.S.-based wind and solar manufacturing companies that claim to be interested in domestic production have been lured by the siren call of cheap overseas labor. Evergreen Solar, for instance, recently revealed that it plans to shift assembly of solar panels from its heavily subsidized plant in Devens, Massachusetts to Wuhan, China. It would follow in the footsteps of U.S. firms such as First Solar, which already does most of its manufacturing in Malaysia, and TPI Composites, which produces wind turbine blades in Mexico and China.

It’s also not the case that foreign firms are always worse than domestic ones when it comes to respecting the rights of workers. Within the wind and solar sector there are U.S. companies that seek to weaken their unions (such as GE) or keep them out altogether (e.g., DMI Industries, which fought a Teamsters organizing drive). At the same time, there is Spain’s Gamesa, which accepted the desire of its workers in Pennsylvania to unionize and has developed a cooperative relationship with the Steelworkers.

From a labor perspective, the issue is not whether a company is foreign or domestic. What counts is whether it is redlining U.S. workers or giving them a chance to participate in producing the components of the economy of the future.

Chicago Sit-In and the Future of Green Jobs

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

The sit-in at Chicago’s Republic Windows & Doors brings together a host of issues such as labor rights in a plant closing, the refusal of a major bank receiving billions in federal bailout funds to invest in a struggling company, and the fragility of blue-collar employment in the weakening economy. Let me add another to the mix: the fate of green jobs.

Coverage of the labor dispute tends to treat Republic as an old-line manufacturer desperately trying to survive in a new economy. On the contrary, Republic’s business – the production of replacement windows – is a key component of the clean energy revolution being so widely touted these days. Installing those windows lowers the amount of energy used by homes and commercial buildings, thereby reducing the need for new fossil-fuel-burning power plants. The Apollo Alliance is calling for a national energy efficiency commitment to reduce energy use in new and existing buildings at least 30 percent by 2025.

Before it fell on hard times, Republic was promoting green principles not just in terms of the uses of its windows but also in the way its products were made. In December 2003 the company issued a press release announcing that it was developing a “cradle to cradle” design system that would allow the materials in its windows to be fully recycled, thus avoiding the generation of waste. The project received funding from the Chicago Department of the Environment. In a follow-up interview with Industry Week, company executive Les Teichner said Republic was also looking into ways to expand the life span of window frames so they could remain in place longer while the company would replace and recycle window sashes more frequently.

It’s not clear to what extent Republic was able to follow through on its ambitious environmental plans and what role they played in the company’s competitive and financial circumstances. It is also not yet known whether the announced closing of the company last week was more the result of a shutoff of credit by Bank of America or a decision by the company’s owners to move the operations out of state.

In any event, the situation serves as a cautionary tale for proponents of green jobs. We cannot assume that the clean-energy revolution will happen spontaneously nor that the kinds of jobs it creates will necessarily meet the highest standards. Aggressive government enforcement of labor laws and strong union advocacy of the sort being demonstrated by the UE at Republic will be necessary to fulfill the promises of the green-collar economy.

Rank-and-file activism like that being employed by the Republic workers will also be a key part of the equation. The Republic sit-in harkens back to the labor militancy of the 1930s but it also looks forward to the coming struggle to create a future of secure, well-paying and environmentally-friendly jobs.

Pickens’ Self-Serving Energy Plan

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

What are we to make of the Pickens Plan? This week, long-time oil investor and corporate raider T. Boone Pickens (photo) put forth a proposal to greatly reduce American dependence on foreign oil. At the heart of the plan is a call for large-scale expansion of wind energy to allow the country’s natural gas now being used for electricity generation to serve instead as a cleaner fuel for cars, trucks and buses.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Pickens says: “I believe this plan will be the perfect bridge to the future, affording us the time to develop new technologies and a new perspective on our energy use.” While the call for a massive commitment to wind energy is generating excitement among some environmentalists, the idea of devoting enormous resources to natural-gas-powered vehicles seems a lot more dubious.

Pickens, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $3 billion, has the resources to drown out the naysayers. He has vowed to spend some $58 million to promote the plan.

But is he really advocating an idea–or simply advancing his own interests? Pickens controls Mesa Energy, which plans to spend up to $10 billion building a gargantuan wind farm in rural Texas whose value would be greatly enhanced amid the national effort that 80-year-old Pickens is proposing. His BP Capital hedge fund is heavily invested in natural gas as well as oil.

It’s amazing how many of the hundreds of news articles written about the proposal in the past two days have failed to mention Pickens’ vested interests, while the Associated Press quoted him as making the following preposterous statement about his plan: “I don’t have any profit motive in this. I’m doing it for America.” Back in April he was more candid when speaking to the Guardian about his wind farm investment: “Don’t get the idea that I’ve turned green. My business is making money, and I think this is going to make a lot of money.”

We should also be wary of Pickens because of his other bold initiative: buying up water rights. Just last month, those exploits were the focus of a story in Business Week whose cover (left) depicted him as the water equivalent of the ruthless oil tycoon of the movie There Will Be Blood. It will be a sad state of affairs if we let wheeler-dealers such as Pickens set the agenda for the future of our resources. Sustainability cannot be based on cornering the market.

Sharing the Clean-Car Prize

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

John McCain’s suggestion yesterday that the federal government offer a $300 million prize for the development of a next-generation battery for plug-in hybrids or electric cars is being derided in some quarters as bringing a “game-show ethos to American politics.” It is also awkward that Daniel Yergin’s definitive account of the oil industry’s quest for domination was entitled The Prize.

The idea of offering a cash award for a technological innovation is hardly unprecedented. Such bounties, however, are usually offered by private entities such as the X Prize Foundation. What McCain is forgetting is that when a prize is offered by government—that is, when taxpayer money is the source of the reward—the public should get some direct benefit for its “investment.” A benefit, that is, beyond the fact that the new technology would be available for sale.

This is the principle behind the proposal put forth by people such as James Love of the Consumer Project on Technology to replace privately financed drug research with taxpayer-funded prizes. Pharmaceutical researchers would get substantial sums for the creation of new treatments that create demonstrable improvements in health conditions. This does not, however, create windfalls for the winners. Drugs that receive the prize—which was incorporated into a bill introduced last fall by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—would not have patent protection and thus would be widely available at a cheap generic price.

There’s no indication that McCain has this trade-off in mind. He presumably would want the winners of the battery competition to be rewarded twice—with the prize as well as the patent.

Until prizes and other “carrot” approaches succeed in bringing about cleaner cars, some government “sticks” will remain necessary. One disclosure-based version of the latter is being introduced in California. The state’s Air Resources Board announced last week that, beginning next January, every new car put on sale in California will be required to carry a label informing potential buyers of the vehicle’s environmental impact. The label will rate the car based both on its emissions of greenhouse gases and its contribution to smog. The Board already has a website that provides data on the cleanest, most fuel efficient cars on the market.

Compared to his dismaying embrace of expanded offshore oil drilling last week, McCain’s clean-battery-prize idea is not completely foolhardy. But he shouldn’t forget that the role of government is to put a check on business shortcomings—if only through mandated disclosure—rather than fostering more winner-take-all “solutions.”