Sunday, January 16, 2011

Solar job leaks

Photo: Not rocket science: Unity students assemble solar modules in class, using a "breadboard"-type experimental approach as used in old-fashioned electronics experiments. This allows students to deduct the proper association of series and parallel connectivity to produce a target voltage. This is basically all there is to making a poly- or monocrystalline solar module. This and a few choices of laminate and frame engineering. Safety note -- the over-eager student on the table was told to get down as soon as the picture was taken.

In my business, the news that Evergreen Solar, an important US-based manufacturer of polycrystalline solar modules, will move it's assembly operation to China at a cost of something like 800 jobs might be perceived like a big "hit" to advocates of growing the US "green" economy.

That would be the simple version.

But one source of the competition Evergreen has faced, and one reason it needed the cheaper labor costs offered by the move, is the rise in western-produced, amorphous-semiconductor based technology.

Amorphous or thin film technology requires much less human labor in assembly. I show students in my classes a YouTube video showing the Nanosolar factories in California and Germany, and ask them what they notice.

The first thing they notice is, there are very few people.

What you have to understand, to understand the situation, is that the Evergreen plant in Massachusetts was primarily an assembly plant putting together pre-assembled components made elsewhere, not a fabrication plant that used raw material inputs.

Polychrystalline technology has been superseded by amorphous technology, but it's not dead yet because it's still economically viable. But it won't be for the long haul. It requires too much energy and too much labor.

Sooner or later the cost of producing thin film will drop yet further, and when it does, the only way that polychrystalline technology will thrive is through continued subsidy. It makes sense for Evergreen to go to China where such subsidy will no doubt be forthcoming in all kinds of ways, lower or non-existent local taxes, free educational support, free buildings, high-priced government contracts for product and so on.

Not to mention labor at pay rates any self respecting American would consider penurious.

What we do need to do is to hold on to the thin-film technology for as long as we can, so that the democracies benefit politically. If technology like that owned by Nanosolar and its ilk goes to China, then we're in trouble.

I think it's a problem for the US and the west in general if we let all the polycrystalline assembly jobs go to China. There's probably room for improvement in the older technology still, and we don't know yet how long-lived the new amorphous-type panels will be. We should keep our hand in. But we shouldn't worry about the loss of Evergreen. Nothing is going to China that the Chinese don't already have.

What this example does show is the difficulty of governments picking winners in the solar business. The 30% technology-neutral tax subsidy that goes to householders and businesses (for a short while yet) is a much sounder proposition from a strategic viewpoint than the several kinds of hidden subsidies the Chinese are using, most of which require them to pick a bet on the technology. We should keep it in place for now.

How much longer will we need that subsidy? Not long, if prices drop below $1.50 a watt, which is close to parity with other electricity generation.

Cheap solar will make household scale wind power obsolete within two years. No-one will want to buy a Bergey or a Skystream when you can get a noise-free 6K solar array for less than a Skystream.

To some extent, cheap solar will eventually make wind farms obsolete too, but not as quickly, and not as absolutely, because to some extent the timing of wind generation over the day and year is an economic complement to the timing of solar generation, not a substitute. We're going to want some wind farms around, especially here in the frozen north.

(Anti-wind activists -- be careful not to misquote or selectively quote this last for your own purposes. Try to actually help the conversation along for once. Use the whole quote.)

So how long should we keep the subsidy in place?

About until Congress removes the subsidies on coal and oil.

Especially the mountain-top subsidy. the one that lets coal companies destroy whole mountaintops and the climate for free, when solar and wind are cheaply available.

That's a really bone-headed subsidy. But you don't see the Tea-Partiers wailing about that one, do you?

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