Michigan Solar Panel Factory's Labor-Intensive Assembly Tasks Moved To Mexico

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ECD, 5.6 kw UNI-SOLAR® product installation example in Heilbrunn Germany. Image credit:ECD UNI-SOLAR® products web page.

Energy Conversion Devices of Auburn Hills MI recently received a $13 million stimulus tax credit to upgrade operations to produce a new, more efficient line of solar cells. The focus would be on mechanical and chemical engineering innovations, I assume. That government supported plan is still on course, apparently, although on a delayed schedule. That's the good news. Here's the bad news. ECD has announced it is terminating 140 Michigan jobs and moving final assembly tasks to Mexico. The unskilled labor part, in other words.

What can be done in general about outsourcing of low skilled jobs? There are two choices. One is to look the other way when manufacturing jobs get out-sourced. The other is to do revisit NAFTA and other trade agreements to make it profitable for manufacturers to keep low skilled -jobs at home. To make America first for all. The challenges are several. Look below for key factors that must be dealt with to help prevent green job 'leakage' of the sort exemplified by this story.Washington Wire, the WSJ blog, covers the ECD jobs move in the post Green Jobs That Can Be Outsourced.. Here's a summary quote, complete with political boot-in-the-teeth quip.

President Obama promotes federal subsidies for the renewable energy industry, saying they will create "the jobs of the future, jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced."

But some green jobs can be outsourced, as Michigan solar cell maker Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., demonstrated Tuesday.

And here are some of the key factors which have to be overcome to help keep manufacturing jobs - of any type - in the USA.

  • Solar cell makers in China, Malaysia and Mexico are not held accountable by their governments for health, safety, or environmental performance. (Corporate contractors or site owners based in the West can step in if they wish.) That lack of accountability lowers cost of goods.

  • They get paid a small fraction of what even the lowest paid US worker gets for comparable work.

  • Mexican electricity is coal-fired and they'll always do the bare minimum for pollution control. ( Asian electricity pretty much the same gig, of course.)

  • Manufacturing company lobbyists have a firm grip around the neck of US Congress and are investing even more for the coming mid-terms to keep that grip.

  • For easily-shipped goods like solar panels, it's easy to break up a supply chain into small pieces: assembly there; packaging somewhere else; headquarters yet another place, and so on. Supply chains can't be regulated or taxed. (*see footnote below)

  • The slowed economy is a global phenomenon: the most desperate overseas makers, backed by their governments, can always lower their prices (it's called "dumping.")

  • We are headed into a period of scarce commodities, where the critical metals needed to produce renewable energy come mainly from nations where the government has a tight rein on production and even owns the industries.

  • A large fraction of those likely to vote in the mid-term elections have only one thought: blame Obama and "liberal" Congressional supporters.

Overcoming the last factor in the above list, political scapegoating, will do no good unless the preceding ones also are addressed.

*Note: Wind turbine parts are far too large to be cost-effectively shipped around the globe. Final assembly is done near the market for the same reason. That's why wind turbines, regardless of whether a stimulus package was involved or not, tend to stay "home sourced."

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