Power up on green power

Read Thomas Friedman’s Op-ed piece, “Have a Nice Day” in the Sept. 15 New York Times.

I am not a big advocate of sacrificing our tax base and environment to attract big corporations. I am deeply suspicious of the standard arguments: Sacrifices are warranted by the economic prosperity and jobs such businesses might bring. My suspicions generally are upheld by research that indicates such businesses tend to be transitory, and many bring only the lowest-paying jobs, the kind that actually cost us more to support. (Some estimate that Walmart jobs cost the local economy $5,000 per worker.).

But two random pieces of information from recent news reports have me wondering if there aren’t certain industries that might be worth, if not deep sacrifices, at least an energetic campaign to bring them to our area.

The first news item is that Nevada’s jobless rate clocked in at a little over 13 percent in the third quarter. We are worse off than the nation, which is hovering right around 10 percent. Our state budget is unraveling at the seams as revenues continue to plunge, and the modest taxes imposed this year won’t take effect for another year or two. Foreclosures continue to rise—not as fast as a few months ago, but rising still. Outlook remains grim.

The next bit is from Thomas Friedman’s piece, “Have a Nice Day” in the Sept. 15 New York Times. He wrote about Applied Materials, the United States company that has invented the top process for manufacturing solar panels. Applied Materials has built 14 solar factories in the past two years. Not one of them is in the United States. “Invented here, sold there” is Friedman’s ironic suggested motto. “Right now,” he writes, “our federal and state subsidies for installing solar systems are largely paying for the cost of importing solar panels made in China, by Chinese workers, using hi-tech manufacturing equipment invented in America.”

Nevada is competing with a number of other sunny dry states to be the “Saudi Arabia of solar (or wind) energy.” I think we would really be able to lay claim to that title if we could host the first grown-up solar panel factory in this country—not to mention the jobs this would generate. Oh yeah, Tom has a bit on the negative spin conservatives are giving the green jobs concept: “You’ll often see sneering references to ‘green jobs.’ The phrase is usually in quotation marks as if it is some kind of liberal fantasy or closet welfare program (and as if coal, oil and nuclear don’t get all kinds of subsidies). Nonsense. In 2008, more silicon was consumed globally making solar panels than microchips.” Germany’s renewable energy sector generated 50,000 new jobs and is now second only to automobile manufacturing in jobs creation. Applied Materials earned $1.3 billion in 12 months from its factories.

Friedman didn’t mention whether these solar-panel factories meet reasonable environmental regulations, whether they demand a lot of water, or whether the labor practices are fair. I would not support bringing any manufacturing in that didn’t meet these criteria. What he did say is that a mature renewable energy industry would require legislation paving the way for mass adoption of the new technologies. “One thing that has never existed in America—with our fragmented, stop-start solar subsidies—is certainty of price, connectivity and regulation on a national basis.”

Our lawmakers passed several measures this year to support and promote renewable energy development in this state. We should start working now on measures that will guarantee the three necessary economic criteria for the next biennium, and investigate installing a manufacturing plant now so that Nevadans can get back to work preparing for the next wave of solar demand.