Brains or Brawn: Solar Energy & Massachusetts’ economic future

Thanks to gmoke for the tips to the Boston Globe’s ‘green’ articles on Earth Day.  Green Light is subtitled “How to make Massachusetts the Silicon Valley of eco-energy”. This article begins:

“Since the beginning of his gubernatorial campaign, Deval Patrick has made clean energy a pet issue …”

“Pet issue”?  Well, perhaps regular readers might realize that we’re going to find a problem with that …

as governor, [Patrick] has pledged to make Massachusetts “the renewable energy center of the world.”

So, what is going on? Were these simply words in a campaign or is anything happening?  This article’s hook

Just last week, the state announced the largest job gain of the governor’s administration: Evergreen Solar Inc. will build a $150 million plant in Westborough to manufacture solar panels, creating up to 375 jobs.

What is Evergreen? Anything special about them? In their words:

“There’s never been a better choice for solar panels than Evergreen Solar. Our panels are made by state of the art manufacturing featuring our unique String Ribbon wafer technology. Add the fact that we manufacture everything — wafers, cells and panels — all under one roof for ultimate quality control, and it’s not surprising then that our solar panels are among the highest quality products in the industry. And that’s not all. Because of the unique way they’re made, they are the most environmentally friendly solar panels in the business.”

Well, it is off their front page … but, their String Ribbon technology gets a lot of credit and they’ve been increasing production rapidly over the past several years.  That their backlog keeps growing even as their production capacity grows suggests that the real-world test of the market place believes there is a there there with Evergreen’s processes.

Evergreen’s CEO gave Patrick credit for Evergreen staying in MA rather than going elsewhere for their new plant:

Our new plant in Massachusetts is a natural evolution of this market penetration as we focus on the significant opportunities in the United States. Several states aggressively pursued our planned new facility. Governor Deval Patrick’s vision for broad scale solar power adoption through an innovative solar incentive program as well as the creative financial incentive programs that the Governor, the Legislature and the Town of Westborough are expected to provide were key factors in our decision to expand in Massachusetts.”

So, what is the Boston Globe‘s take on this? 

The entrepreneurs, scientists, venture capitalists, and activists who have thought most about green technology economics welcomed the news, saying they share the governor’s optimism about the state’s potential as a clean-energy capital.

But some of these same thinkers argue the Evergreen plant does not represent the future of Massachusetts green technology.

Hmm … Well, those loony ‘green’ people say this is great except, well, even “some of these same thinkers argue” that this doesn’t represent the “future”. 

What “some of these same thinkers argue” should be the future?

With some of the nation’s highest electricity rates, Massachusetts has a particular interest in discovering alternatives. And as the home of a world-class collection of research universities and technology firms, it is almost uniquely qualified to develop those alternatives, not only for consumers here, but to feed the fast-growing global demand. Yet Massachusetts is a small state with high labor and housing costs, they argue, and so it must be strategic, concentrating efforts where it is strong — innovation, research and development — and not in areas, like large-scale manufacturing, where it is at a disadvantage.

“Massachusetts’s great comparative advantage is in brainpower, not metal-bending,” argued Henry Jacoby, a professor at the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Other than the size argument, this does sound like the proponency of unbridled export of manufacturing from the United States. Let our ‘brains’ be our economic engine and nothing else matters.  While a believer in the reality of benefits from globalization, the literal dismantling of American manufacturing plants to send overseas has not strengthened the nation’s future prospects. 

Brains or brawn, which way to go? Well, there are many in MA who believe brains is the answer.

To Sahin, though, history suggests that manufacturing in Massachusetts will stay small. The state has created more than its share of cutting-edge technologies, Sahin argues, only to see their production migrate somewhere else — to a region (or country) distinguished less by its high proportion of universities and entrepreneurs than by the low cost of its labor. That’s what happened in the 1980s with computer production, a sector Massachusetts used to dominate, and, to a lesser extent, in the 1990s with software — and for that matter, in the late 19th century with textiles.

History is deterministic … what has happened before, will happen again.  …

According to Sahin, that’s as it should be; the state’s strength is in finding the next promising technology. “I think there are disadvantages to hanging on to something too long,” he said, “There’s a certain sweet spot for Massachusetts.”

For Sahin, MA is a Brain with no Brawn state. 

When the choice came between “brains or brawn” in the economy, the answer should have been yes.  When Americans developed the VCR and CD and DVD and Hybrid-Vehicle technologies, would the nation and the economy been more strengthened if more of the manufacturing exploitation of these technologies had remained on our shores?  

Well, Deval Patrick evidently thinks so.  Evergreen Solar is a MA company, whose science came out of MA universities.  Patrick is taking the steps to keep more of the lifecycle of home-grown technology profits for the citizens of his state. Isn’t that what a governor is supposed to do?


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