As China selects its new leadership this week, jobs, energy, and international relations will be very much on the minds of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. Over the past decade China has transformed its economy into the leading manufacturing power in the clean energy sector. This is a tremendous achievement, and one that warrants a hard look at how U.S. policies stack up.
One glaring issue is that China, like many European nations, has internalized the lesson that a strong research and manufacturing sector in clean energy can generate very significant job growth and leadership if domestic technology deployment is brought into the equation. This adds “demand pull” to the “technology push” vision of a clean energy economy. Today in the United States we have a chance to make good on such a vision in a very concrete way.
The Silicon Valley-based solar panel manufacturer MiaSolé is about to be sold overseas, and possibly dissolved. Its technology is an innovative threat to some existing manufacturers. In fact MiaSolé’s thin-film manufacturing technique, which can reduce the amount of expensive materials needed by over 90 percent from conventional solar cells, is truly a breakthrough technology that will be outsourced, or lost to the United States without immediate action.
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The technology pathway for MiaSolé is bright, with current costs for the solar cell modules of 80 cents per watt, with a roadmap in place for achieving costs under 50 cents per watt within five years. The U.S. Department of Energy has launched an “Apollo project” for solar energy called SunShot, which is built around science, policy, and deployment efforts to achieve $1 per watt solar power by 2020. The solar cells themselves account for about half the cost of an installed system, and the other half is the power inverters and other components known as the “balance of system.” Thus, MiaSolé is already on track to meet Sunshot’s 2020 target of price parity between solar energy and current commercial power sources.
MiaSolé is a very real, productive company, with a 150 million watt (MW) per year production facility in California today, and over 60 MW already deployed in commercial operation. MiaSolé is, or was, the third largest thin-film solar energy producer in the world, and has achieved an industry-leading 16 percent efficient solar panels, with a technology path to achieve over 20 percent efficiency based on advances in solar cell science and manufacturing. Further, MiaSolé’s planned roll-out of thin and flexible solar cells could revolutionize installation and expand market opportunities, further reducing costs.
These achievements are based on MiaSolé’s patented production process, in which the layers of the thin film are deposited onto a three-foot wide sheet of stainless steel foil as it passes around the periphery of large circular production machines.
Despite these successes, MiaSolé is having difficulty finding buyers for its product at a time of exceedingly stiff competition around very low cost solar cells and a short-term oversupply. Thus, even after raising over half a billion dollars of private investment the company is shutting down and is slated to be sold to at a fire-sale price of $30 million to China’s largest privately owned renewable power company, Hanergy Holding Group of Beijing.
Forestalling this loss of U.S. technology requires immediate action: first, to secure U.S. ownership of MiaSolé’s patented production technology and, second, to restart manufacturing by them and other competitive U.S. solar companies. A number of immediate opportunities exist.
First, the sale of MiaSolé overseas can be reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) – a federal interagency committee that reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in the U.S. Particularly valuable U.S. companies can be assessed for their value as engines of growth and, we argue, of energy independence. CIFUS committee is chaired by the Secretary of the Treasury, and includes the Secretaries of Energy, Homeland Security, State, and the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Members of Congress and the Senate from California can readily contact these offices to request a CIFUS investigation.
To secure MiaSolé technology, the Department of Energy loan program could make a loan against the MiaSolé patents to hold them in the United States.
To restart the company, the U.S. could use the huge purchasing power of state and federal agencies, in particular the Department of Defense and the Department of Interior, which have plans to install billions of watts of renewable energy capacity, whose costs would be substantially reduced given the currently low and projected even lower MiaSolé module costs.
And finally, the Commerce Department’s recent ruling calls for tariffs – in the range of 30 percent – on solar panels imported from manufacturers, whose practices have damaged the U.S. solar industry. Should such tariffs be enacted, the proceeds could be used by the government to purchase panels from MiaSole and other competitive U.S. companies–panels that then could be given gratis to homeowners installing solar systems. This would be cheaper than the current solar subsidy, and would keep the U.S. production base operating.
On the other hand, this policy of fighting a trade-war over solar is bad for everyone. Instead, the U S. could stake out innovative positions on both research and development leadership and policies to expand dramatically the domestic market. That would be the best policy, but until we embrace that policy, we should commit to “technology push” and “demand pull” policies in the United States. We would thus be investing in domestic job creation and implementing a real form of energy independence.
Professor Daniel M. Kammen is the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and Environment and Climate Fellow to the Americas (ECPA), appointed by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in April, 2010. This piece is co-authored with Anthony V. Nero, a retired senior scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who has researched issues from nuclear power production to indoor radon exposure.