Hu Jintao, president of China, the dominant producer of solar panels in the world, arrives in Washington, DC, for a State visit Tuesday. He arrives just days after one of America's largest producers of solar panels -- Evergreen Solar -- announced that it was, according to The New York Times, "closing its main American factory, laying off the 800 workers by the end of March and shifting production to a joint venture with a Chinese company in central China. Evergreen cited the much higher government support available in China."
That should make for some interesting dinner conversation at The White House. It should also be the talk of Washington this week.
America has an opportunity to rebuild its economic preeminence through scientific innovation -- and solar energy conversion should be a high priority, given our scientific and technical expertise, our wealth of sunshine especially in the Southwest, and our availability of skilled workers who want and deserve jobs. The question is: Will the U.S. government support the American people in that quest?
In announcing the Massachusetts plant closing, Evergreen Solar's President & CEO Michael El-Hillow stated: "Solar manufacturers in China have received considerable government and financial support and, together with their low manufacturing costs, have become price leaders within the industry. While the United States and other western industrial economies are beneficiaries of rapidly declining installation costs of solar energy, we expect the United States will continue to be at a disadvantage from a manufacturing standpoint."
And Evergreen Solar is not the only U.S. solar panel manufacturer cutting back. Solyndra, a California-based designer and manufacturer of solar photovoltaic systems, announced in November that it would shut one of its two American plants and delay expansion of the other. Ironically, Solyndra was named in 2010 as "One of the 50 Most Innovative Companies in the World" by MIT's Technology Review magazine and one of the "Top 10 Venture-backed Clean-Tech Companies" by The Wall Street Journal.
According to Sustainable Industries, "six weeks after Solyndra flipped the switch on the (new $733 million) plant last September, it announced it would close an older factory and delay plans to expand the new ... facility in the face of intense competition from low-cost Chinese manufacturers." "Meanwhile," Sustainable Industries continues, "the prospects for continued (U.S.) government support for renewable energy are looking increasingly shaky. A federal program that gave cash grants to cover 30 percent of the cost of multibillion-dollar solar and wind energy projects has been extended but only until the end of the year... And the federal loan guarantees that have been crucial to getting large projects built is set to sunset in September."
Fortunately, the United States has within the Obama Administration some of the nation's finest scientists, beginning with Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. There's no question that they get it. The question is: Will they have the financial and legislative support within the government as a whole? Will the sun literally rise on our economy?
Ironically, one of our nation's leading proponents of solar power is lying in a Tucson hospital recovering from an assassination attempt. I pray for the full and speedy recovery of my friend Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who, I hope, will soon again be leading the fight for American leadership in solar energy conversion. She recently participated in a major new grant-making initiative in solar energy conversion funded by the foundation that I lead.
In the meantime, we can be inspired by her words, just as we are daily by her example. In making the case for solar power, she has stated: "Solar power is an emerging industry with huge global potential. The worldwide market for power is over $6 trillion a year and growing fast, and everyone is looking for new, clean sources of electricity. Solar means good jobs and a competitive America. With solar power, the fuel is 100% domestic and free. There are no long supply chains to defend or rogue states to threaten our energy supplies. What's more, we don't have to send our hard-earned dollars overseas."
But will our nation follow that advice? As The New York Times states, "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 do we explain that to our grandchildren?
James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), America's second-oldest foundation, founded in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.