Better Energy, Education Policies Needed to Boost Manufacturing

The president of First Solar Inc., the world’s largest maker of thin-film solar panels, called for U.S. policies to encourage investment in renewable energy that would keep manufacturing in the U.S.

Bruce Sohn said more consistent renewable energy policies would encourage investors to support large-scale U.S. plants needed to continue innovation. Sohn, president of the Tempe, Arizona-based company, made his remarks at a conference in Washington organized by the U.S. Energy Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, or ARPA-E.

The meeting focused attention on the contrast between the design capabilities of energy startups developing cutting-edge technologies in the U.S. and the lagging manufacturing know-how to produce them on a commercial scale.

“Other countries compete for these technologies and create policies that attract companies like us,” Sohn said during a panel discussion. “Frankly, I’m tired of it,” he said.

The U.S. clean energy industry “should be manufacturing here in the U.S.,” Sohn said.

ARPA-E IS modeled after the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which helps research and development in defense-industry technology. ARPA-E received $400 million in stimulus funding in 2009 to distribute to companies developing promising technology.

At the ARPA-E conference, industry executives bemoaned the lack of skilled labor in the U.S. for renewable-energy manufacturing.

‘Better Paying Jobs’

“I think the focus has to be on better paying jobs, that’s the real crisis in the country,” Tom Baruch, founder and managing partner at San Francisco-based venture capital company CMEA Capital, said in an interview yesterday. “We’re not educating people to do that,” he said.

“Where we are really good is in innovation, discovery and entrepreneurship,” Baruch said, while the public education system is “in shambles.”

John Baumstark, chief executive officer of Norcross, Georgia-based solar module company Suniva Inc., said the lack of consistent energy incentive polices makes it hard for companies to make long-term plans.

“We need policy,” he said on the panel with Sohn. “We need to stick with that policy and give manufacturers like us, our customers, our suppliers the confidence that the U.S. has put a stake in the ground and that there will be demand if I invest the capital and resources.”


Sohn said that more consistent federal incentives would improve U.S. manufacturing capabilities. “We need to have bridging policies such as the Department of Energy loan programs to provide encouragement and provide confidence to ensure people will invest in these large, utility-scale plants, so we can drive the costs down and continue to innovate.”

Dow Chemical Co. is investing $100 million to accelerate energy efficiency and conservation improvements in its operations, and Doug May, its head of energy and climate change, said the Midland, Michigan-based company favors a renewable power standard that includes energy efficiency, nuclear and natural gas.

“We feel we need one,” May said, though he said it will likely happen slowly. “You don’t move an energy system overnight. It takes decades.”