Op-Ed: Watching out for China

Published in the Boston Globe, November 12, 2009

EVERGREEN SOLAR'S announcement that it is transferring its solar panel assembly operations to China deals another blow to the state's faltering renewable energy economy. The announcement came just a week after activists unveiled their most cynical effort to block Cape Wind, claiming Nantucket Sound to be the traditional focus of Wampanoag sunrise prayers as well as a burial ground for tribal ancestors.

Governor Patrick has made it a priority to develop alternatives to the state's traditional fossil fuel economy. In addition to encouraging companies like Evergreen Solar to build their plants here, his administration has set an ambitious but attainable target for wind energy: 2,000 megawatts of installed capacity by 2020, roughly equivalent in output to one major coal-fired power plant. Today the Commonwealth delivers only nine megawatts of wind power to New England's electricity mix; that's less than .03 percent of the wind energy generated nationwide. Meanwhile, projects large and small have been blocked by NIMBY activists hell-bent on protecting pristine views, in disregard of the Commonwealth's necessary role in the battle against climate change.

Evergreen Solar is by no means alone in relocating its operations to China. Cheap labor and a burgeoning Chinese appetite for renewable energy have drawn many leading companies to make the same move. Last month, the top global manufacturer of windmills, the Danish company Vestas, opened its largest manufacturing complex in Tianjin. In addition to taking advantage of lower production costs, the company is positioning itself to be a dominant player in the world's biggest potential wind energy market.

China ranks second only to the United States in wind power capacity, with roughly 20,000 megawatts already installed as compared to about 31,000 megawatts up and running in the United States. If the Chinese government approves a plan now before its chief planning body, the Asian giant will harness 150,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2020. Anticipating an enormous growth in wind energy both in China and around the globe, some 80 wind turbine manufacturers - state-owned and partially privatized Chinese companies as well as foreign competitors - have built factories in China, and hundreds of additional companies in that country are part of a rapidly growing supply chain for wind energy components. A 70 percent local content requirement, just lifted as part of a set of US-China green energy agreements signed on Oct. 29, may have kept some foreign competitors out, but it also induced others - like Vestas in Tianjin and GE Wind in Shenyang - to build their factories in China, employ Chinese workers, and pay corporate taxes to their host communities.

China may be a growing producer and user of wind and other renewable energy technology, but there's still plenty of room for a robust renewable energy industry in the United States. While labor is cheaper throughout most of Asia, the high cost of transporting heavy steel towers and giant wind blades across thousands of miles is leading US and foreign corporations to locate new factories close to where American wind farms are being built - in places like Colorado, Iowa, and Kansas. These new plants are producing thousands of American jobs, often in small towns and cities hardest-hit by the economic slowdown.

Wind energy will play a big role in President Obama's goal of providing a quarter of the nation's electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Despite its recent setbacks, Massachusetts needs to find its place in this promising industry.