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Posted by hoangtran204 trên 16/01/2009

U.S. solar panel makers prefer overseas

Tax credits for makers of renewable energy products could revive the U.S. industrial sector. But most find other countries more attractive.

By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer

Last Updated: January 15, 2009:

NEW YORK, — When SunPower, one of the country’s largest makers of solar panels, went looking to build a factory a few years back, several countries vied for their business.

Ultimately, the company was attracted to a place that offered a competitive workforce and favorable taxes – and 5,000 high-skilled manufacturing jobs ended up in the Philippines.

“We would love to have the opportunity to invest in our own backyard,” said Julie Blunden, a spokeswoman for the San Jose, Calif.-based company. But “the tax packages offered in the Philippines are difficult to compete with in the U.S. today.”

It’s not just taxes that entice companies to build abroad – lower wages and, in some cases, a better trained workforce help too. But taxes are a key part.

Now, as lawmakers scramble to pass a stimulus package designed to revive the economy and wean the nation from fossil fuels, more people are calling for a special tax break in the U.S. for manufacturers of renewable energy products.

Leading the charge are a handful of Senate Democrats keen to see these manufacturing tax credits make it into the stimulus bill.

The renewable energy industry already gets tax breaks – but they are targeted at producers of the power – the utilities and other companies that operate the wind farms in the Midwest or the solar arrays in the Arizona desert.

The new tax credits would be for manufacturers – the companies that build the solar panels, wind turbines, or equipment used in geothermal energy production.

Details of how manufacturing tax credits would work vary, but it would generally involve letting these companies take 30% of what they invested in equipment in a given year off their total tax bill.

Numbers on how much this tax break would cost or how many jobs it would create are also hard to come by.

The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates it could create 315,000 jobs by 2011, and that’s just in the solar industry alone. The wind industry might double that number, with geothermal and biomass adding even more jobs.

While tax breaks for the renewable industry as a whole – expected to total around $25 billion as of last tally – have wide bipartisan support in Congress, it’s not expected that the manufacturing tax credit will make it in this time around.

They were not included in the first draft of a House bill unveiled Thursday.

Proponents of tax incentives for green energy manufacturers say it’s too bad these haven’t yet been included.

“If we’re serious about job growth, and we’re serious about renewable energy, then why not establish some sort of federal incentive that would drive the two,” said Michael Carboy, a renewable energy analyst at Signal Hill, a boutique investment firm based in Baltimore.

Many have argued that the U.S. has long lost out on opportunities to lead in the clean energy field.

Attracted by better subsidies in not only Asian countries but places like Spain, Denmark and Germany, renewable energy firms – many of which originated in the U.S. – have been setting up shop overseas.

In addition to the lost manufacturing jobs, this country also loses the specialized engineering knowledge that comes with a robust renewable energy industry.

Moreover, it loses its basic manufacturing know-how – the companies and employees that make the gear grinders, metal cutters and other equipment that form the backbone of an industrial economy.

“What are we doing to our own competitive posture?” asked Carboy. “We are being reckless by continuing to outsource technologies we need to build our industrial base in the U.S.”

But others say targeting a specific industry for favorable treatment is a bad idea.

Robert Murphy, an economist at the free-market think tank Institute for Energy Research, sees nothing wrong with more domestic manufacturing or a lower tax rate.

But to single out renewables, he says, sets the government down the dangerous path of picking what will be the best technologies.

“They are micromanaging and cloaking it in tax relief,” he said. “They are giving an advantage to solar over the other energy sources that pass the market test.”

Others argue that the other energy sources – like fossil fuels – are only cheaper because they don’t price into account their negative effects, namely pollution.

They also say the government has a long history of supporting emerging industries. The construction of the Interstate Highway System helped the auto industry, while the Internet, which originated in the Defense Department was a boon to the personal computing industry.

“At the beginning of a nascent market, do you want to decide to engage in the early evolution of that industry or no?” asked SunPower’s Blunden. “This is that time.”  To top of page


Environment + Technology
By Todd Woody

October 17, 2008, 12:17 pm

Germany invests in green jobs – in America

HILLSBORO, Ore. – A solar cell factory has sprouted in Oregon’s Silicon Forest amid the region’s old-growth semiconductor plants. And who is providing these well-paid, high-tech green jobs, investing in America rather than fleeing to Asia to set up shop? The Germans.

Bonn-based SolarWorld AG on Friday officially flips the switch on the United States’ largest solar cell plant. (See the Fortune video here.) The company, the world’s fifth largest solar cell manufacturer, has recycled a former Komatsu factory built to produce silicon wafers for the chip industry  Last week, SolarWorld America president Boris Klebensberger gave Green Wombat a sneak peak at the new Hillsboro plant and talked about why a German company, whose domestic solar market is the planet’s largest, is pursuing a made-in-America strategy. (SolarWorld’s German rival Solon AG, meanwhile, on Friday opened a smaller solar module plant in Tucson, Ariz.)

“I know a lot of people will say, ‘You idiot, Boris. You can’t manufacture in the U.S.,’ ” says Klebensberger, 39, who sports a hoop earring and has a penchant for saying what’s on his mind.

That has been the conventional wisdom. While thin-film solar companies like First Solar (FSLR), Solyndra and Energy Conversion Devices (ENER) have built factories in the U.S., traditional silicon-based module makers such as SunPower (SPWRA) have outsourced production overseas.

But SolarWorld is counting on its expertise in manufacturing in high-cost Germany and its new American branding to give it a competitive advantage. “Made in America is a very big selling point,” says SolarWorld marketing director Anne Schneider. “Customers like that.”

Like other solar cell makers, SolarWorld is trying to build a brand around an increasingly commoditized product. “Even in a commodity business this is a brand,” says Klebensberger. “If you have to choose between two products that are technologically the same,  you’ll probably choose the one made in the U.S.”

SolarWorld jumped into the U.S. market in 2006 when it acquired Royal Dutch Shell’s solar cell factory in Camarillo, Calif., and a silicon ingot plant in Vancouver, Wash. “This was an opportunity for SolarWorld to establish itself in the U.S. market very quickly and get an employee base,” says Klebensberger, who also serves as COO of SolarWorld’s global operations.

The company was founded in 1998 by, as Klebensberger puts it, “five crazy guys who people thought were on drugs” when they said they were going into the solar business. (Klebensberger was employee No. 7.) But Germany’s lucrative incentives for renewable energy quickly turned the nation into a solar powerhouse and SolarWorld went public in 1999. Revenues – $931 million last year – have been growing around 30%-40% annually and the company has a market cap of $3.1 billion.

SolarWorld saw a potentially huge opportunity in the U.S. but the Shell plant was relatively small – producing 80 megawatts of solar cells annually – so Klebensberger went shopping for a new factory. He ruled out California – too expensive – before settling on Hillsboro, 20 miles west of Portland.

The cost of living was reasonable – at least compared to California – and Oregon is on the forefront of promoting sustainability and the green economy. And just as importantly, Intel (INTC) and other chip companies had opened semiconductor factories, or fabs, in the area in the 1980s and ’90s. “A lot of our workforce came from established chip companies or those that closed their fabs,” says Klebensberger, sipping tea from a coffee cup emblazoned with “Got Silicon?”

“The manufacturing and product is different but the raw starting material is the same and there’s a lot of similarity in the equipment,” adds Gordon Bisner, vice president of operations and a chip industry veteran. “There’s a lot of the same skill sets from a maintenance and engineering standpoint and understanding the basic manufacturing principles and what it takes to manufacture a product successfully in the United States.”

Klebensberger’s team found an old Komatsu silicon wafer fab that had stood empty for years. They bought the 480,000-square foot building for $40 million last year and began retrofitting it. “We needed a quick ramp-up,” says Klebensberger. “This business is all about speed.”

The retrofit took about 15 months – though the minimalist gray industrial decor of the Komatsu era remains. When fully built out in a couple of years, the plant will produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar cells annually and employ 1,400 workers. In the meantime, the target is 100 megawatts by the end of 2008, and 250 megawatts in 2009.

In one corner of the building, a room of steel vats cook up polysilicon, producing eight-foot-long silicon ingots in the shape of giant silver pencils. Those ingots are taken to another room where wiresaw machines slice them into wafers. The wafers then travel down a conveyor belt where robots wash them and scan for imperfections.

“What’s critical here is the equipment,” says Bisner over the hum of the machines. “Our competitive advantage is how we use the equipment, how can we get every little bit of photovoltaic cell out of the end of the line. It takes equipment, it takes technology and it takes people too.”

In an adjoining room, the wafers are imprinted with contacts and transformed into photovoltaic cells. Depending on customer demand, SolarWorld will sell both silicon wafers and finished cells. The company currently gets 10% to 15% of its revenues from the U.S.

SolarWorld isn’t the only solar company wanting a made-in-America label. Sanyo this week announced it will build a solar cell factory in Salem, south of Portland. And Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) earlier this month acquired a California-based solar installer and announced a joint venture with San Francisco-based MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA) to build solar power plants. Suntech chief strategy officer Steven Chan told Green Wombat this week that Suntech will likely open factories in the U.S. within a couple years.

Says Klebensberger, “We provide green jobs. We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing it.”


Does the country need a big gas tax?

Even though energy prices are cheap, many say a straight-up tax on oil and coal is the best way to stop global warming and move the country to cleaner fuels.

By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer
Last Updated: January 9, 2009

NEW YORK ( — To save the planet and move away from imported fuel, some say a big energy tax is the best way to go.

If the nation is going to develop fuel alternatives that will clean the air, limit global warming and make it energy independent, making fossil fuels more expensive is essential, supporters say.

Otherwise, fossil fuels are just too cheap to let alternatives emerge on a big scale.

And many say that with gas and oil prices currently so low, it’s the ideal time to push through a hefty tax. Besides, they say eventually we’re going to be paying more for our energy, so it is important to stimulate the development of alternatives now before an energy crisis strikes.

Clean energy: The next really, really big thing

“What’s at stake is whether or not America is going to be the winner in the next, great global industry,” John Doerr, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, told Congress Wednesday that higher fossil fuel prices are, among other things, essential if the U.S. is going to develop renewable industries.

The prospect of making fossil fuels more expensive is nearly a foregone conclusion. Even when gas prices were over $4 a gallon this summer, both Democrat and Republican presidential candidates were pushing for regulations on greenhouse gasses.

Even Exxon Mobil (XOM, Fortune 500), long accused of funding global-warming naysayers, seems to accept that some type of regulation is forthcoming and necessary.

What’s at issue now is how it should be done.

Congress will almost certainly debate a law capping greenhouse gas emissions in the coming year – a kind of tax wrapped in the guise of the free market.

There’s a decent chance the proposal will pass, ushering in higher prices for everything from electricity to manufactured goods, as companies are forced to either clean up their emissions or buy permits to pollute.

Proponents of this plan – known as cap-and-trade – say it’s needed because it uses market forces to bring about guaranteed reductions in greenhouse gasses. It’s also modeled on a tried and successful plan to reduce acid rain, and is similar to the global plan already under way to limit greenhouse gasses – the Kyoto Treaty.

Carbon tax

But critics say this cap-and-trade is little more than a cop-out – an easy way for politicians to duck an unpopular tax. The most efficient way to cut greenhouse gasses, many economists say, is a simple tax on carbon dioxide.

This isn’t the small 10 cent-a-gallon increase proposed recently to pay for more road work. This would be a hefty tax designed to cut fossil-fuel use.

A carbon tax, as explained by Dan Rosenblum of the Carbon Tax Center, would be a tax on oil, natural gas or coal levied at either the refinery, well head or mine mouth.

Naturally, energy companies would pas this tax on to consumers, who could expect to see a $1-a-gallon increase in the price of gasoline and a $70 increase in the average monthly household electric bill once the taxes were fully phased in over 10 years, according to numbers from the Carbon Tax Center.

The carbon tax is five times more efficient than a cap-and-trade scheme, said Rosenblum, because it cuts out the need to administer the program – which would need a permitting agency, inspectors to monitor emissions, a carbon exchange futures market and Wall Street banks that would likely run it.

Exxon: An unlikely proponent

Even Exxon, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, favors a carbon tax over a cap-and-trade system.

“A carbon tax strikes us as a more direct, transparent and effective approach,” Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s chief executive, said at a speech in Washington Thursday. “It is the most efficient means of reflecting the cost of carbon in all economic decisions – from investments made by companies, to fuel and product choices made by consumers.”

Supporters of cap-and-trade doubt a carbon tax would be more efficient, and say the flexibility offered by cap-and-trade make it a better solution.

“We have a system that is preferable to most of the people involved – companies, regulators and the international community,” said Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesman for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

There are, of course, opponents of making fossil fuels more expensive at all, and they generally fall into two camps.

Some, like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) who once famously called global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” simply don’t think it’s a big deal.

Others say it may be a big deal and we should do something about it, but not now – not when the country is in the midst of the worst recession in decades.

To this last point, Rosenblum and other supporters say the carbon tax can be offset with tax breaks, like a reduction in the payroll tax.

That way, they say, the government could discourage something it doesn’t want – pollution – and encourage something it does – employment – through the tax code.

Still, a carbon tax has attracted scant supporters in Congress.

When Rep. Peter Stark (D-Calif.) proposed one last year, it attracted a total of three co-sponsors among the 435 House members.

“I know it’s widely popular and makes a lot of sense to economists and academics,” said one Democrat Senate staffer. “But unless a member of Congress was considering early retirement, it’s not an approach they would consider on the Hill. It’s political suicide.” To top of page

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