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Jerome Lyle Rappaport

Jerome Lyle Rappaport
Founder and Board Member
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Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser
Professor of Economics at Harvard University
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Stephen P. Johnson

Stephen P. Johnson
Executive Director of Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation
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Greg Massing

Greg Massing
Executive Director for the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service
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Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts
Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School
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Joseph Curtatone

Joseph Curtatone
Mayor, City of Somerville
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Tim H. Davis

Tim H. Davis
Independent Research Consultant
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Scott Harshbarger

Scott Harshbarger
Senior Counsel, Proskauer Rose LLP
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Vivien Li

Vivien Li
Executive Director of The Boston Harbor Association
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Guest contributors

Monika Bandyopadhyay
Suffolk University Law Student

David Barron
Harvard Law School and former Deputy Counsel for the Office of Legal Counsel in the US Department of Justice

Linda Bilmes
Senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Assistant Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration.

Brandy H.M. Brooks
Director, Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, Bruner Foundation

Felicia Cote
Rappaport Fellow, Harvard Law School/Harvard Kennedy School.

Amanda Eden
Suffolk University Law School student

Sara Farnum
Student, Suffolk Univ. Law School

Kristin Faucette
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Benjamin Forman
Research Director, MassINC

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday
JD/MBA student at Suffolk University Law School and the Sawyer School of Business

Theodore Kalivas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

David Linhart
Student, Boston University School of Law

Antoniya Owens
Research Analyst, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Susan Prosnitz
Senior Advisor, TSA, Washington, DC

Ben Thomas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

Matthew Todaro
Student at Boston College Law School

Alexander von Hoffman
Senior Researcher, Joint Center for Housing Studies

Brett Walker
Student, Boston College Law School

Margarita Warren
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Why Green Energy Can’t Power a Job Engine

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011
By Edward Glaeser

Evergreen Solar announced last week that it was closing its plant in Devens, Mass., laying off 800 workers, and moving production to China.

Evergreen’s factory had received more than $40 million in subsidies, which led many to see the plant closing as lesson in the futility of green energy and industrial policy. But what does Evergreen’s story really teach us about solar energy, public subsidies and the future of American manufacturing?

Evergreen Solar’s story begins in 1994, when three alumni of Mobil’s solar division broke away to form their own company. They started in a 2,500-square-foot lab in Waltham, Mass., which has long housed innovative industry, including America’s first integrated textile mill and the Waltham Watch Company, which pioneered high-quality watches with interchangeable parts. Today, Waltham is a venture-capital hub that succeeds by providing abundant commercial real estate and easy access to the scientific community of greater Boston.

Proximity to cutting-edge ideas was surely an advantage for Evergreen Solar in the early days because its principals worked with Emanuel Sachs, a distinguished mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who invented the “string ribbon” process for making solar cells.

“String ribbon” technology was Evergreen’s big idea; it offers the possibility of far more affordable photovoltaic cells. Evergreen began selling “string ribbon” solar panels in 1997 and moved to a much larger space in Marlboro, Mass., in 2000.

Evergreen proved adept at finding financing and global partners. The company went public in 2000, which provided funds to expand operations and repay the venture capitalists, like the Utech Fund, which placed an early bet on “string ribbons.”

An early infusion of $5 million also came from Kawasaki in 1999. In 2005, Evergreen and the European solar company Q-Cells came together to construct a production plant in Thalheim, Germany. Given Evergreen’s global reach, it shouldn’t be surprising that it is now producing together with Jiawei Solarchina.

Evergreen Solar’s move to China was supported by a $33 million loan from the Chinese government, and it has suggested that the Chinese production was cheaper because “solar manufacturers in China have received considerable government and financial support.”

But surely China’s skilled, low-wage labor force is a far more important source of its low costs. Japan’s success in the 1980s was also attributed to its activist industrial policy, but subsequent research found that government subsidies backed losers more often than winners.

Joshua Lerner’s superb book “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (Princeton University Press, 2009) reviews public efforts to support start-ups and entrepreneurship worldwide and reminds us that “for each effective government intervention, there have been dozens, even hundreds, of failures, where public expenditures bore no fruit.”

I suspect few readers will really think that Evergreen Solar was shortchanged by American governments. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory contracted with the company in its early days. More recently, Massachusetts agencies gave tens of millions of dollars to the company.

Conservative critics, including Michelle Malkin, argue that the Devens closing provides a warning about green energy: “The myth that ’green jobs’ are a boon to the economy keeps getting pierced by failed green jobs boondoggle after failed green jobs boondoggle.” But it was always a mistake to think that clean energy was going to be a jobs bonanza, and we should be investing in green technology whether or not it produces jobs.

America has had many high-tech breakthroughs over the last half-century, but those innovations rarely provided abundant employment for the less educated workers who need jobs most. The Devens closing reminds us that even when ideas are “made in America,” production is almost always cheaper in China.

Failed public investments, like the money spent in Devens, reflect the fact that public officials are rarely skilled venture capitalists and that governments pursue many objectives that lead them away from solid investments. It’s easy to see why any governor would be excited about a green-energy manufacturing plant in a less prosperous area of his or her state. But the same forces that made Devens political catnip meant that it was unlikely to be a long-term success.

Manufacturing solar panels in Devens never played to Massachusetts’s core strength: the creativity that emerges naturally when smart people are clustered together. Forty years ago, greater Boston was suffering from the same deindustrialization that afflicted all older American cities. The region came back, buoyed not by renewed manufacturing plants, but by technological innovation, much of which was connected to the region’s rich research community.

Evergreen Solar’s early years were an example of the synergy between schools and start-ups, and greater Boston’s universities will surely continue to spin off new companies. Professor Sachs, for example, has moved on to 1366 Technologies, a solar company in North Lexington, Mass., financed by a Waltham-based venture-capital fund.

Massachusetts’s edge lies in ideas, not products. Those ideas are best produced in creative clusters, built around cities, where knowledge moves easily from inventor to entrepreneur. The only production that really needs to occur in greater Boston is the early-stage manufacturing that can be an important part of the research process. Mature companies, like Evergreen Solar, naturally move their factories to lower-cost areas.

Energy from the sun that doesn’t require vast carbon emissions or dependence on difficult allies is something devoutly to be wished. The main difficulty with solar energy has always been cost, which is why the falling price of solar panels that seemingly pushed Evergreen to close Devens is actually good news.

As long as solar panels are getting cheaper, we shouldn’t worry about where they are being produced. We should continue financing research on solar technology as long as that research continues to produce cost-cutting breakthroughs, like “string ribbon” technology, but we shouldn’t pretend that cheaper solar energy will end up employing millions of our less-skilled citizens.

For decades, local economic success has come from entrepreneurship and education, not large-scale manufacturing. The Devens closing doesn’t imply that there is anything wrong with clean energy, but it does suggest the difficulties inherent in trying to beat China at cheap manufacturing. In the long run, America will be richer than China only by having smarter citizens, and that requires the skills that come from schools and cities, not dispersed factories.


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