Clean-energy tech must become a reality in U.S. manufacturing, by Ben Jealous

1/18/2024, 6 p.m.
What if the answer to undoing the harm wrought by the demise of America’s manufacturing sector was right in front …

What if the answer to undoing the harm wrought by the demise of America’s manufacturing sector was right in front of us? Perhaps it’s an economic boom waiting to happen, to rebuild communities and revitalize our beaten-down working class.

And, this time, without the rampant industrial pollution that fuels climate change and sickens our people. It is not too good to be true. But we must seize the moment if we do not want it to pass us by.

Last week, I visited the Qcells solar panel plant in Georgia. It is the largest facility of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

And as the world transitions away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy sources, it represents the opportunity we have in front of us.

Solar manufacturing jobs in the U.S. are already on pace to more than triple from about 35,000 in 2023 to 120,000 by 2033. We can do even better – by expanding the energy market and domesticating the solar supply chain. The Biden-Harris administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) gives us the tools to turn this dream into reality. But the private sector needs to do its part, with investments that are both patriotic and profitable – not to mention planet-saving.

My visit came one day after Qcells announced a massive deal to supply Microsoft with 12 gigawatts of solar modules and Engineering, Procurement and Construction services over eight years. That’s enough energy to power more than 1.8 million homes annually. And it will help Microsoft meet its goal of being carbon negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030. More than that, it’s an investment in America.

According to the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie, China will control more than 80 percent of the world’s solar manufacturing capacity through 2026. This is the future of energy. And the United States needs to catch up.

The goal should be to scale up investments like Microsoft’s as rapidly as possible, and bring the entire manufacturing lifecycle for solar technology to the U.S. And to do it in a way that pushes the energy utilities that power the factories towards clean fuel sources.

How we power the supply chain is as important as where it lives. Manufacturing clean energy tech domestically can create a virtuous cycle in which grids are increasingly powered by clean sources. That means lower energy bills and cleaner air to breathe.

The IRA ensures it is not just corporations and utilities that are in the game. Billions of dollars are available for local community organizations, cities, schools and homeowners to spur growth in our domestic clean-energy industry.

Despite the “drill, baby, drill” political rhetoric from the oil and gas industry and the politicians in its pockets, elected representatives of both parties understand damn well what these jobs mean for their states and districts. Trust that most lawmakers from Georgia and the other states now being referred to as the “Battery Belt” are eager to reap the IRA’s economic benefits when it comes to clean-energy manufacturing.

New Year’s Day marked the 30th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which contributed to the obliteration of America’s manufacturing sector throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s. What ensued in the wake of those lost jobs, and the devastation of the communities that relied on them, was much of the social, economic, and political strife plaguing our country today.

In this post-NAFTA moment, America can reassert its global leadership in manufacturing the technologies on which the world runs. It will mean an explosion of new American jobs and a windfall for American consumers – who will save money and get other benefits from domesticating supply chains. It also will accelerate the end of fossil fuels. And the protections and incentives in the IRA that focus on equity will help ensure that marginalized communities do not get left behind.

The writer is executive director of the Sierra Club and a Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.