“Green jobs” and manufacturing in the USA

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From the NYTimes… Why Green Energy Can’t Power a Job Engine

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? … The Devens closing reminds us that even when ideas are “made in America,” production is almost always cheaper in China.

I know this looks like a Debbie Downer story, but I think it’s an important example to consider what to focus on, and what we (Americans) can do best at this time — as a government we do not seem to do so great when when we try to be venture capitalists with a specific business (solar) but we do amazingly when we collectively invest in infrastructure and education. The article sums it up nicely…

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.

If $40m and all the advantages in the world couldn’t keep a solar plant competitive in the USA, what races can enter in to win? Design, engineering, rapid-prototyping designs — and of course working with partners around the globe for manufacturing.

20 thoughts on ““Green jobs” and manufacturing in the USA

  1. I used to argue with a couple economists who were down on all green jobs. No, I said, we just have to be discriminating. There are things we should really do, and many of those have jobs associated with them. Which is not at all the same as saying all green jobs are good, or can be a national employment driver.

    So you know, while Asia makes cheaper LEDs, someone has to put them in our traffic lights.

    Long term and big picture, I’m a little worried. We are essentially competing with a country which is willing to send its 14 year olds to live in factory dorms.

    How do you outsmart that, seriously?

    1. We stop buying products from nations that use slave labor. It’s not rocket science. We somehow have to convince the 12 year olds to look at their I-pods and think, someone JUST LIKE ME is in slavery so i can have this toy.

      1. Sure, but I think the problem is that we aren’t just competing with slavery. There is a great movie called “China Blue” which follows a 14yo as she sets out to make a better life in the textile dorms. Family commitment, yes. Desire to succeed, yes. Hard work, beyond what we’d consider.

        And that really is the subtext. We don’t really want to work that hard, or encourage our 14yos to work that hard … so what can we do? Seriously, “education” may not be enough to make up for that much hard work.

        1. We demand a level playing field. This means we don’t, just, stop buying from countries that practice slavery. It means we demand that any country that wants to sell to the US market MUST follow ALL of the same (or, at least, roughly equivalent) labor laws, environmental laws, etc. as US companies do and we make sure that there is outside auditing done to confirm that they are, actually, enforcing those laws.

          1. I’m not sure how I’d feel about that, if I were the Chinese.

            The Asian model, the “tigers” model, has been for everyone in the country to work really, really, hard, and to pull themselves up in development faster than was deemed possible.

            At some point our “fair labor” practices are those of an old, rich nation – one which doesn’t have to worry about such things.

            I mean … we spend our time making pencil balancing robots for goodness sakes. That’s not something that a country which is really hungry does.

  2. I think the US could be considered competitive in manufacturing if the accountants did a better job at cost analysis. Low cost labor isn’t the problem if we can’t compete manufacturing products that have minimal labor costs.

    How much labor is involved in making drywall? Why would the US import drywall from China?

    Now in theory the manufacturing of solar panels may be a labor intensive process that can’t be automated. More likely however, the Chinese government is willing to subsidize the manufacturing in the short term to get Evergreen Solar to agree to the mandatory technology transfer.

    The problem is corporate management that prizes short term profits above all else.

  3. Here’s the problem (based on the excerpts from the article):

    We cannot solely rely on education, design, and engineering to keep our economy afloat. Look at the growth and advancements in technology the US has seen since the 1950s. China is now where we were in the 1950s, except with today’s technology and with a trillion (or more -i dont know how much it is) dollars of US money we spent in china over the last many years.

    What happens when China decides to catch up to us and excel in design and engineering? Then where will we be?

    Manufacturing is vital to our economy, and to our national security. We need to make some of the things we use. There is no reason to spend $9 for a pair of chinese pliers when you can get a USA pair for $12. We are losing manufacturing capacity and capability that we may never be able to replace. It is a precarious position to be in when the most basic ammenities like power tools and light bulbs cannot be sourced domestically.

  4. I think that the future belongs to the solar energy. Besides, it is not only about a clean energy, but about the fact that the natural raw material resources become more and more scarce like oil. It is the more importantly that the government subsidises solar works further. But the problem is really China with her unrivaled cheap production. I don´t know how this goes on on a continuing basis in such a way, it must happen something.

  5. History lesson anyone?

    WW2: everyone but USA’s mfg base was destroyed.
    Americans went from farms to war to college. Real College. Those farm boys got degrees in Engineering and Science. From those real disciplines we got better math, physics, and chemistry. The space race. Electronics, smaller cheaper components.

    -rant-

    Today:
    Business schools churn out the best marketing spin doctors money can buy, finance degrees that obfuscate $$ to the tune of trillions(Derivatives). Law schools that churn out politicians who have the latest elixir to their failed tonic of yesterday. The same b school graduates that have fleeced “We the sheeple” for $2+ trillion in the last couple years, and strapped us with $14 trillion+ in debt(plus another $40 trillion, off the books, kinda like Enron). B school graduates goto washington that expect bailouts and lucrative contracts so they can keep their cushy job.

    In America the tail wags the dog, we’ve subsidized the failure(Bschools,politicians) and punished success (math, science, nerds and dorks).

    But yet no one can figure out why it is … that China can produce things cheaper.
    -/rant-

    Learn. Learn from these mistakes. Break the cycle. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZeiSKnhOBc

    And of course, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL HACKER SPACE! :D or Start one at the local coffee shop if ya gotta.

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