For cities today, the message is go green – or lose vital tech industry
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published by: TechConnect, Fall 2008
Tim Teich believes his Tucson company’s thin-film solar foil could be the hottest thing to come out of Arizona since Jordin Sparks – but he’s not necessarily waiting on Arizona to vote on it.
“Right now, there are huge incentives being offered by other states to companies in renewable energies, to attract them to that area for production and manufacturing,” says Teich, vice president of sales and marketing for Global Solar Energy. “And that can be a huge draw for a company like ours to put plants in places other than Arizona.”
Don’t get him wrong, he clarifies: Teich loves Arizona – particularly its near year-round sunlight, which Global Solar has found a way to vacuum-deposit onto flexible stainless steel solar cells and sell by the wattage. In the 12 years since its start, Global Solar has grown into one of the biggest players in the young field of thin-film CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium DiSelenide) solar cells. Teich says the company, which recently moved into its new 100,000 square foot factory in Tucson, is talking now with heavies in the building materials industry about slipping their wafer-thin cells into shingles, rolled roofing and even the curtain-wall siding on skyscrapers.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that in less than ten years, you’ll see new Pulte, Lennair and KD Homes built with solar shingles on them,” he says.
But getting to that point can be costly, and renewable energy companies depend on state policy makers to cut them the breaks that’ll spot them ’till profitability – as well as offer incentives to the rest of us to buy into renewable energy, which can at the outset seem an expensive proposition. With states like Michigan, smarting from economic blows to its auto industry, now offering sweeter incentives to solar start-ups than Arizona, the global demand for renewable energy can leave a promising green tech business feeling like a free agent.
“We’re an Arizona company,” Teich says. “But if somebody else in another state is saying, ‘Hey, put your next 300 megawatt plant up here. We’ll negotiate a deal with the power company, we’ll grant you the land, you won’t get taxed for five years’ – that’s something you have to look at. And that kind of thing is happening very rapidly now.”
Councilman Greg Stanton, who chairs the Phoenix City Council’s Sustainable Subcommittee, is aware of the danger of Arizona losing some of its renewable energy companies to the highest bidder, and admits Arizona is still playing catch-up with the clean energy policies of states like Vermont, Maryland and Massachusetts.
“The reality of life in Arizona is that we don’t have as many economic tools in our toolbox as other states, and we need the legislature to help provide those tools – investment credits and so on – to keep companies here,” Stanton says. “Of course, in solar, the one competitive advantage we have over everybody is access to the sun. But ultimately, these industries will go where they can be the most profitable. And now is the time.”
The Arizona Corporation Commission’s mandate that utilities get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025 has already set a few positive steps in motion. In August, Arizona Public Service announced a new loan and rebate program that will allow customers to install solar panels or wind turbines on their houses with virtually no up-front charge – which should boost demand for renewable energy products. And simply to meet that 15% goal, Stanton says the city itself will be purchasing more renewable energy from the private sector.
“We have to create the marketplace for renewable energy,” he says. “And if we don’t step up to the plate, as a large governmental entity that can take advantage of some economies of scale, then we’re not doing our part for the so-called green-collar economy.”
Some energy leaders in Flagstaff and Tucson think the state’s capital city is still not supporting renewable energy enough.
“Phoenix is the place that stops things,” says Vivian Harte, chair of the Tucson-based Arizona Solar Energy Association. “We’re the liberal bastion of the state, and Phoenix is more conservative, on the legislative level. It’s more a mindset here that people more or less go along with progressive energy policies. Same with Flagstaff and Sedona. But in Phoenix, there are so many people going in the opposite direction that good ideas are often stopped.”
Stanton says such caution is necessary in the renewable energy field.
“Cities have to make incredibly difficult decisions on what technologies we invest in,” he explains. “We don’t know what technologies are coming, and we don’t want to over-invest in technologies that won’t be the right ones ten years from now.
“But at the same time, we can’t be so cautious that we do nothing,” Stanton adds. “We can’t over-analyze what technology we should look at to the point that we don’t create the marketplace for renewable energy.”
In many ways, that marketplace is already being created on a global scale. This past August, Shea Homes, a national builder with a strong decades-long presence in Arizona, won applause from the Valley’s green community for being the first builder to offer solar power systems on its new Trilogy homes in Peoria and Queen Creek – free, even, for the first month of the promotion. Only the builder chose to stick with traditional silicon wafer panels, not the thin film of a homegrown firm like Global Solar, and the supplier it went with was not local but global – BP Solar, with production facilities stretching from the US to India.
Even Global Solar owes its expansion from a 4 to 40 megawatt factory to a 2006 buy-out by a European investor.
“I would hope that the state pay attention to companies that are already here, and assist them in their growth so that they don’t go out of state,” says Teich. “That’s a core issue: to make sure Arizona’s legislators understand that they need to hold on to these industries that are vital for the future.”
As for Global, the company recently completed a 35-megawatt capacity factory – in Berlin, Germany.