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Follow-the-Leader: Why Isn’t Arizona First in Solar Technology?

It used to only be watching the nightly news. Now it's the newspaper on my doorstep, and online. And the radio, too. They give me heartburn.

Last week, the story opener was, "Solar firm picks Goodyear for plant." Sounds great, right? As many as 250 new jobs for Glendale and an estimated $10 million in economic benefit. Then came the zinger: Suntech, which Greater Phoenix Economic Council CEO Barry Broome predicts will become Arizona's largest employer within 15 years, is a Chinese solar energy company.

Now, I have nothing against foreign companies - global competition makes us all better off. I recognize that all is fair in love, war, and business. Any company that brings more jobs into our beleaguered state is welcome. But here's the question: why is Suntech not an Arizona company? How is Arizona not the home base for solar energy firms, their headquarters, R&D facilities, manufacturing plants, and generating stations?

I hadn't even had my sausage and eggs (which also give me heartburn) on Saturday morning when I read the headline in the New York Times, "China Leading Global Race to Make Clean Energy." I thought green energy was supposed to be our shtick, America's last chance to remain the world's most powerful economy (Thomas Friedman and T. Boone Pickens said so). We've given that up to China, too?

I'm not the only one who feels this way, it seems. In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama said "We need to encourage American innovation. . . And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. . . providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future - because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation."

Arizona's leaders, too, have long talked about the need to diversify the state's economy, to build our competitiveness. Governor Brewer has said, "I am very serious about establishing Arizona as a leader in the renewable energy sector, and creating quality, stable jobs that will help advance and diversify our state's economy."

Indeed, green energy is an ideal base for Arizona's new global economy. Thomas Friedman talks about "100,000 people in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things" to develop green technologies. That's what we need here in Arizona - a homegrown green revolution.

To be fair, there are Arizona-based companies doing innovative work in green energy, right here in our backyard:

  • First Solar, headquartered in Tempe, is one of the largest solar manufacturers in the world. But the company's project development office is in California and its manufacturing facilities are in Ohio, Germany, and Malaysia.
  • In 2012, APS will begin operating one of the world's largest solar power plants, Solana, 70 miles southwest of Phoenix. The plant will generate 280 MW, about enough energy to serve 70,000 APS customers. But it's being built by Abengoa Solar Inc., a Spanish company.
  • SolFocus, a developer of Concentrator Photovoltaic (CPV) systems, has a growing solar glass reflector manufacturing plant in Mesa, a self-ascribed example of the "new energy economy." (Which is great, of course, though the company's headquarters is in California.)

We have some success stories, but there is so much more to do to make Arizona the solar technology capital of the world. The state is well-poised to be a solar energy leader, in an environment in which there is huge momentum behind green technology.

Now in, other words, is the time to make our move, before it's too late. Rhetoric alone - simply bemoaning Arizona's (and America's) declining competitiveness - won't get us anywhere. We need to do something. What might that be?

Written on Monday, 01 February 2010 21:07 by Gary Yaquinto

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