Thursday, May 05, 2011

Paging Dr. Chu

I mentioned this little problem in the Earth Day round-up, and the Freep followed up with a story on the front page of what turned out to be Bin Laden Day - so, of course, it was instantly forgotten.

Time to bring it up again.

President Obama has been touting clean energy for the past two weeks in his weekly address, and has made this initiative a focal point of his administration as of late. Well, maybe it's about time someone from the White House go lean on the U.S. Department of Energy to start following through on its energy loan program, before the delays send all these clean energy jobs somewhere else. We are talking thousands of jobs in Michigan that are waiting for an answer - and they have been waiting for a long time now.

Three high-profile alternative energy projects in Michigan -- including a renewable energy park at the former Ford Wixom Assembly Plant -- have run into delays because they have not been able to obtain loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The situation has created uncertainty about the future of these projects. Besides the energy park, they involve a solar cell manufacturing factory near Saginaw and one of the country's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plants, which would be built in the Upper Peninsula.

Together, these deals represent $1.2 billion in new investment in the state and more than 3,800 new jobs.

If successful, they would significantly boost the state's efforts to grow its clean energy industry.

"These are all poster child projects for the state," said Martin Dober, senior vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. "They are extremely important."

The Wixom project features Clairvoyant Energy, manufacturer of solar panels, and Xtreme Power, a battery/energy storage company. The deal was announced 18 months ago, and now it is one year behind schedule due to problems with the loan process at the DOE. The companies are scrambling to find banks to back the project if the feds don't come through - but most banks and investors want the guarantee of federal backing before they make the deal, so the companies are in a bit of a Catch-22. They have already received state environmental clearance, so we have done our part.

The good news on Wixom is that these companies are still proceeding with their plans - but apparently we are going to lose solar-panel manufacturer Sunvia in Saginaw. That means 500 jobs, gone, perhaps headed overseas.

A $250-million solar cell factory: In October 2009, Suniva announced plans to build a manufacturing plant in Thomas Township, west of Saginaw. The company said it would hire 500 workers for the factory, which was supposed to open this year.

But earlier this year Suniva suspended its plans to obtain a $141-million loan guarantee for the project. It is now in the process of raising $115 million from investors.

Saginaw economic development officials said Suniva has not told them that it is pulling out of the project. In a statement, Ashley said comments other than from the company are speculative. It plans to make an announcement before the end of June.

"There's obviously a significant risk that the project does get lost to Michigan ... or maybe lost to the United States," Dober said.

This is unacceptable. While the federal government may be conducting a thorough review of loan applications, and that is commendable, a two-year wait in this day and age is not the way we will "win the future". These companies need an answer, yes or no, a lot faster than that.

Other projects on hold: The Mascoma biorefinery in Kinross has obtained state permits, but they have yet to break ground. That project was announced in 2008; at last report, they have pushed back the opening to 2013. Northern Power Systems was the first company to produce a large wind turbine prototype in Michigan last year, they are waiting on a loan to begin commercial manufacturing. And Uni-Solar is waiting to hear on loans for an upgrade in Greenville - no word on whether or not they will ever open in Battle Creek like they had planned.

Once again, do we want clean energy manufacturing jobs in this country, or not?

If we do, then we need to get moving on addressing this problem, and help these companies get off the ground. They won't wait around forever. And if not, then please stop leading the public to believe that this is a priority. Actions speak louder than words, and if we don't see some action, eventually people will stop believing the words.

Let's go. Time is wasting.