Here comes the Suntech

A Chinese solar power company says it may offshore production ... to the United States.


Andrew Leonard
November 6, 2007 3:36AM (UTC)

As noted here two weeks ago, Azim Premji, chairman of the Indian outsourcing specialist Wipro, made news earlier this year when he talked about setting up subsidiaries in U.S. states that were "less developed." Now comes word of another globalization rebound. Suntech, the up-and-coming Chinese solar power giant, is considering building solar cell manufacturing facilities in the United States.

As reported by Greentech Media, and picked up by CNET:

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"We are currently in discussion with the governors of three different states who have been recruiting us to build factories," said Roger Efird, president of Suntech America, the company's U.S. subsidiary, on a Solar Energy Industries Association conference call. "And we have actually begun looking at sites, et cetera."

We don't recommend holding your breath; the plans are still very much in the exploratory stage. But a related Greentech Media story, "Who Will Be the Middle East of Solar?" contained a passage replete with even more irony. The story quoted Alexander Karsner, an assistant secretary for the Department of Energy, musing on the security implications of renewable energy.

"If you want to focus on a new era of energy security, you have to focus on not just where commodities -- gas and oil -- are located, but where the manufacturing capacity for nuclear-energy conversion and solar devices will be located," he said at the Redwood City, Calif., event.

Most clean-energy manufacturing is happening in other countries, he added, saying that U.S. tax-based subsidies are going to foreign manufacturers in Germany, Denmark and Japan.

"One would think, given our overreliance on tax policy for most of the preservation of the environment, that we would begin gearing our tax policy so that we aren't losing twice," he said.

U.S. taxpayers first subsidize these investments in other countries, he said, and then U.S. companies have to buy the technology back from those companies overseas.

But why are U.S. tax-based subsidies, by which How the World Works assumes is meant the various state-level policies aimed at pushing solar power, such as California's Million Solar Roofs initiative, and New Jersey's aggressive solar power adoption plan, going to the likes of Germany, Denmark and Japan? Could it be because those countries took a much more forceful national approach to encouraging solar power early on? Germany's success in becoming a solar power R&D hot spot is a potent example of successful government intervention. But in the U.S. we ceded energy policy to the market, and whoops, now it appears that there might be some national security implications.

But maybe China will solve that problem by outsourcing solar panel production to the U.S.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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