We’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.