In announcing his new appointments to the U.S. Manufacturing Council on Thursday, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke singled out his pick as the council's new leader, Bruce Sohn.
"With Bruce as chair," said Locke, "we're sending a message that President Obama and this administration are committed to making renewable energy and efficiency technologies a cornerstone of a revitalized American manufacturing sector."
Sohn is president of First Solar, the world's largest manufacturer of thin-film solar photovoltaic modules (PV). A Commerce Department spokesperson confirmed that Sohn is the first representative from the solar power industry to head the council, which advises the department on competitiveness and other issues facing U.S. manufacturers of all types.
Solar advocates, unsurprisingly, enthusiastically endorsed the selection.
"This is validation of the proposition that renewable energy is where it's at," cheered Adam Browning, head of the Vote Solar Initiative, and a former EPA official in the Clinton administration. "Leadership in developing -- and manufacturing -- the energy sources of the future is a key to our future economic prosperity."
President and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Rhone Resch, issued a statement saying that Sohn's appointment "has told the world that the solar industry is becoming a backbone for our economy and offers a bright future for U.S. manufacturing." (NB: First Solar sits on SEIA's board of directors.)
But the solar industry isn't the only one applauding the council's new leadership. Having a representative from the clean and renewable energy sector is recognized as a step forward for the environment in general and in the fight against climate change in particular.
Jenny Powers, an NRDC spokesperson, said that by including Sohn, the administration is acknowledging the fact that solar has earned a seat at table. "This really demonstrates the relevancy of renewable energy sources to our economy," Powers said. "They [solar] are scaling up and playing with the big boys."
Sean Garren agrees. A clean energy advocate with the group Environment America, Garren said his organization is "looking forward to working with Mr. Sohn to reap all the manufacturing benefits we will see from the solar revolution in America."
That revolution is coming not a moment too soon in the fight against climate change.
A decade ago, the SEIA's Resch points out, 40 percent of all PV panels were made in the United States. That figure has dropped to less than 10 percent of the global supply today, a trend Resch thinks can be reversed in part by adopting smart manufacturing policies. One example Resch cites is the Advanced Energy Manufacturing program that provided $2.3 billion in tax credits to support U.S. manufacturers of clean energy equipment. The program proved popular with manufactures -- so popular that it ran out of money almost as soon as it began. In July, the U.S. House voted to add funds to keep the program going. Backers still hope to get a similar bill through the Senate.
First Solar has its corporate headquarters in Tempe, Arizona, where in 2009, the state legislature passed its own groundbreaking program, providing tax credits to manufacturers of renewable energy equipment (SB 1403). When PV manufacturer SunTech announced in January that Arizona would be the home of the first Chinese-owned PV plant in the U.S., the company said SB 1403 was a major factor in the choice.
First Solar manufactures thin-film PV at plants in Germany (approximately 700 workers), Malaysia (2,000 workers) and Perrysburg, Ohio (1,000 workers). The company plans to open a new plant in France in the second half of 2011. Manufacturing jobs have followed demand and, until recently, most orders for solar panels have come from Asia and Europe. As demand for PV here at home has jumped, First Solar has increased the size and production of its Ohio plant.
Supporters of renewable energy have often said that as the industry scales up, backed by demand and aided by targeted government incentives, Americans will see many benefits. The air will be cleaner, they say, greenhouse gases will be reduced and job growth -- the key element that's been missing in the U.S. economic recovery -- will rise.
With one of their own now leading the U.S. Manufacturing Council, the odds that the renewable energy industry may get the opportunity to prove those claims just got a little better.