U.S. shoots green job creation in the foot.
By Jeffrey Hollender
It’s hard to believe in a country that needs good jobs as much as it needs clean energy, but is about to lose it’s third largest manufacturer of solar technology. Evergreen, based in Devens, Massachusetts, is shutting down its brand new plant, laying off 800 workers and setting up shop in China at the end of March. The reasons for this are well documented in a recent New York Times story, but the explanation is complex and not likely to generate much discussion or debate as a result.
But one part of the story is quite simple: America’s economy is in deep trouble and we don’t have a strategy to fix it. Instead what we have is a corporate hostage crisis that’s making matters worse.
Our economy is being held for high-priced ransom by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; oil, gas and coal companies; the American Petroleum Institute; the American Chemistry Council and other powerful “old economy” businesses and institutions fighting tooth and nail to prevent the birth of a new sustainable economy. And I’ve got more than a few questions about this state of affairs.
Why, for example, does Exxon Mobil, a company with a steady stream of millions of dollar in weekly profits, receive roughly a billion dollars a month in a vast array of tax credits, financial incentives and other corporate welfare?
Why is it okay for U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, who supposedly represents “all businesses,” to be personally paid an annual retainer of at least $1,134,333 by the Union Pacific Railroad, a key transporter of coal?
As the Times reported, “although solar energy still accounts for only a tiny fraction of American power production, declining prices and concerns about global warming give solar power a prominent place in United States’ plans for a clean energy future.”
You would hope we’d have enough sense to create this future for ourselves right here at home, but the Times offers some sobering indications that, thanks to efforts by the old economic guard, we’re on the wrong track:
- Solyndra, a Silicon Valley business that was visited by President Obama in May and received a $535 million federal loan guarantee, said in November it was shutting one of its two American plants and would delay expansion of the other.
- First Solar, an American company, is one of the world’s largest solar power vendors—but most of its products are made overseas.
- Chinese solar panel manufacturers accounted for slightly over half the world’s production last year. Their share of the American market has grown nearly six-fold in the last two years, to 23 percent in 2010 and is still rising fast, according to GTM Research, a renewable energy market analysis firm in Cambridge, Mass.
- In addition to solar energy, China just passed the United States as the world’s largest builder and installer of wind turbines.
“Beyond the issues of trade and jobs,” the Times concludes, “solar power experts see broader implications. They say that after many years of relying on unstable governments in the Middle East for oil, the United States now looks likely to rely on China to tap energy from the sun.”
How sad is all that? And beyond countering dangerous public policy initiatives from the U.S. Chamber with support for alternative progressive voices like the American Sustainable Business Council, what do we need to do about it?
Here’s what: America needs a new economic policy, one that recognizes we will never be the best at everything and in an age of global competition, every country needs to choose its specialties.
So far we’re choosing flipping hamburgers, mining coal and running jails. This strategy is creating high unemployment, an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and an environment in serious and dangerous decline.
Here is a snapshot of the kind of economy we really need:
- One that relies on growing high quality, nutritious food as locally as possible.
- One that gives our youth the skills required to design and build sustainable products and technologies that will support information management, communications, alternative energy and mass transportation.
- One based on green chemistry that formulates everything from soap and laundry detergent to fuel and fertilizer with sustainably produced, non-toxic chemicals.
- One that pays our teachers, health care workers and social service employees salaries that make the caring professions more appealing careers than investment banking and hedge fund management.
- One based on first-class, high-tech infrastructure that carries everything from mass transit to giga-bites of information quickly, efficiently and sustainably.
- One whose incentives ensure businesses rely on renewable resources, emit no pollutants, invest in worker education and training, and refuse to dispose of workers to meet quarterly earning expectations.
We can fix the problems we face. We have the technology and capability. What we don’t have is the political and organizational leverage to wrestle our economic policy away from industries that are holding us hostage to a system that has long since lost any ability to secure a just, vibrant and sustainable future for all Americans.
About Jeffrey Hollender
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