Solar Panel Plant For a Greener Massachusetts

Since the beginning of his gubernatorial campaign, Deval Patrick has made clean energy a pet issue. He was the first major candidate to come out in support of the controversial Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound. And as governor, he has pledged to make Massachusetts "the renewable energy center of the world."

Just last week, the state announced the largest job gain of the governor's administration: Evergreen Solar Inc. will build a $150 million plant in Westborough to manufacture solar panels, creating up to 375 jobs.

The entrepreneurs, scientists, venture capitalists, and activists who have thought most about green technology economics welcomed the news, saying they share the governor's optimism about the state's potential as a clean-energy capital.

But some of these same thinkers argue the Evergreen plant does not represent the future of Massachusetts green technology.

With some of the nation's highest electricity rates, Massachusetts has a particular interest in discovering alternatives. And as the home of a world-class collection of research universities and technology firms, it is almost uniquely qualified to develop those alternatives, not only for consumers here, but to feed the fast-growing global demand. Yet Massachusetts is a small state with high labor and housing costs, they argue, and so it must be strategic, concentrating efforts where it is strong — innovation, research and development — and not in areas, like large-scale manufacturing, where it is at a disadvantage.

"Massachusetts's great comparative advantage is in brainpower, not metal-bending," argued Henry Jacoby, a professor at the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

The state, Sahin said, should redouble its efforts to nourish companies — often small to medium-sized ones — involved in what he calls "upstream production," the research and development of new technologies and the tackling of the sort of fundamental problems that prevent their commercialization.

Battery technology is a prime example — improvements in energy storage capacity would enable intermittent energy sources like wind and sun to better compete with traditional generator fuels like coal and natural gas. Increasingly efficient solar cells is another. Nanotechnology, which holds promise both in the production of biomass fuels and the disposal of toxic chemicals, is a third.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the state is fated to lose out on large-scale green manufacturing, or that it should limit itself to the more esoteric end of the production chain. Ian Bowles, the state's secretary for environmental affairs, agrees that Massachusetts remains a relatively expensive place to put a plant. But manufacturing solar panels, he argues, is very different from making T-shirts or transistor radios. "When these products become true commodities, when you're stamping them out on an automated factory line, I think it's right to say that that's not where we compete well," he said. "But early or mid-stage manufacturing, you need a skilled, educated workforce for that."