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It was only July of last year when the sophisticated $165 million facility opened with the help of $58 million in state aid. A big ribbon-cutting celebration with the governor and company officials touted more than 700 new jobs. It was seen as proof that Massachusetts was becoming a green energy powerhouse.
Since then, the Devens facility of Evergreen Solar has been ramping up its production of solar wafers and cells. Workers then put those into panels like the ones you see on the roofs of buildings.
But the last part of the process — panel assembly — will transition to a factory in China in the middle of next year. Evergreen’s CEO Richard Feldt told investors in a conference call that solar panel prices fell 30 percent over the last year. He said assembly abroad would help the company lower costs to keep pace.
"It is compelling that the costs in China are low: low capital costs, low labor costs, low overhead costs," Feldt said. "So I think it will be difficult to be a worldwide supplier of scale and not have some operations in China."
The loss of Devens jobs angered some state policymakers, including state Sen. Mark Montigny.
"We are giving taxpayer resources to a company that’s using the resources to build their product in China," Montigny said. "I think it’s outrageous and the taxpayer is getting ripped off."
As part of the deal with the state, Evergreen pledged to create 350 jobs, and the company said it will keep those manufacturing jobs here. The company’s chief financial officer, Michael El-Hillow, told investors the factory could produce more again if the market improves. But for now, he said there hasn’t been enough U.S. support for solar energy.
"There doesn’t seem to be the traction we had hoped from the new federal government, from President Obama, on alternative energy," El-Hillow said. "We were hoping. That was No. 2 on his platform, but their focus is health care."
In contrast, China is spending more of its economic stimulus on renewable energy. The government there is paying for two-thirds of Evergreen’s new solar panel factory in Wuhan.
"You’re seeing a lot of companies in the solar space and in the renewable energy space generally moving over to China," said Stephen Lacey, who follows the industry for RenewableEnergyWorld.com in New Hampshire. He said solar used to be dominated by Europe and the United States. Not anymore.
"China is going to do for solar panels what it did for tennis shoes. And that is: drive down the costs as quickly as possible," Lacey said. "And we as an industry need this."
Lacey said capturing solar energy is relatively expensive. The cheaper solar energy gets, the more sales Massachusetts companies will see, and that translates into local jobs. Steve Rhoades is the CEO of the solar company Satcon. He expects to add 100 positions over the next two years in Boston.
"It’s our corporate headquarters, so we’re doing all of our R&D, we’re doing all our engineering," Rhoades said. "We have the corporate function for the company."
Just not manufacturing — that was never the plan. The news that Evergreen Solar is moving production jobs to China is a reminder that Massachusetts is profiting from its competitive technical prowess. But the manufacturing future for green energy is difficult.
This program aired on November 6, 2009.
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