Solar Power: Made in the U.S.A.

Sunny Milpitas, California is the newly announced home of SunPower’s first domestic manufacturing operations. Yep, you heard right. More green manufacturing jobs right here in the U.S.A. (In November, Chinese solar powerhouse Suntech announced that its first U.S. manufacturing facility would be located near Phoenix, Arizona).

SunPower’s  75-megawatt production line is expected to employ 100 by the end of the year, and spread the wealth around even more by sourcing equipment and materials from a host of other states throughout the United States. At the Vote Solar Initiative, we like to remind folks that manufacturing is only a fraction of solar’s overall job creation opportunity. In fact, about 75 percent of solar employment is related to system installation, jobs that are inherently local in the first place. Nevertheless, manufacturing is near and dear to most Americans, and this new production facility is tangible proof that the green economy has a real role to play in bringing those jobs back home — with the right policies, that is.

As was the case with Suntech’s Arizona selection, SunPower’s decision to locate manufacturing in California is a testament to the state’s market-building solar policies. And so it is appropriate that stalwart renewable energy supporter, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, joined in making the announcement. During the event, Schwarzenegger highlighted a few initiatives that have been so instrumental to the state’s new energy economy that we think they bear repeating:

* California Solar Initiative. Dubbed “Million Solar Roofs” by the Governator’s own office, this rebate program helps energy consumers go solar. Cleverly designed to build a self-sustaining solar market, the program is comprised of incentives that decline as progress is made toward 3 gigawatts of installed solar. And it’s working. Big time. Last month the CSI program hit yet another record growth milestone with more than 50 megawatts of rebates reserved. That’s about the same capacity as a typical peaking power plant that utilities use to meet high mid-day demand. That, my friends, is solar going mainstream.

Governor Schwarzenegger and SunPower CEO Tom Werner celebrate green job creation in California.

Anyone following our California campaign over the last couple years knows that the CSI program is in fact so successful that we were on track to hit a cap on a related policy called net metering. Net metering allows CSI participants to “bank” excess electricity generation and save it for a rainy day (perhaps literally) when they’re consuming more than they’re producing. California law capped net metering participation at 2.5 percent of utilities’ peak load. The CSI program alone takes customer-sited solar to roughly 5 percent. That’s a problem. With strong support from the Governor and champions in the state legislature, in March the state passed a new law that doubled the amount of solar that utilities are required to net meter. With the higher cap now in place, California solar customers can rest assured knowing that they’ll receive fair credit for their clean energy investment.

* Renewable Portfolio Standard. Designed to get more clean electrons flowing to all of California’s energy consumers, the RPS requires the state’s major utilities to get 20 percent percent of their electricity from renewables by 2020. That’s an impressive target. One that’s going to take all kinds of renewable energy development. And fast. So we’re working on programs that support deployment of large-scale, mid-sized and distributed rooftop solar generation alike to help bring new renewables online at the scale demanded by the RPS. And if that’s not aggressive enough for you, at the SunPower event Schwarzenegger assured the audience he’d be taking another run at raising that RPS target to 33 percent this year.

* AB 32. This is California’s first-in-the-nation greenhouse gas law – not a renewable energy policy per se, but an important model for carbon regulation that has helped redefine the national energy debate. It’s now under threat thanks to a nefarious measure on the November ballot. AB 32 defender Schwarzenegger made a point of calling out the “greedy Texas oil men” funding the ballot initiative, and asked voters to stand firm in support of this leading piece of climate legislation.

California’s comprehensive policy framework has spurred the diverse, fast-growing solar market that we see today. Through these programs and favorable tax-policies for manufacturing equipment, the state has sent a clear signal to the global industry that California is in it for the long-haul – and companies like SunPower are reciprocating by setting up shop close to this hot-spot of solar demand.

In the case of this new Milpitas facility, we can thank the Federal Government for its commitment to solar as well. In 2007, the Department of Energy’s Solar America Initiative awarded SunPower a R&D matching grant to develop the next-generation equipment that will make up the new manufacturing line. Yesterday DOE Solar Energy Technologies program manager John Lushetsky was on hand to see his office’s public-private partnership turn R&D vision into commercial reality.

And how did the Governor respond to an invitation to revisit the space when that new manufacturing line is up and running?

You guessed it.

He’ll be back . . .

photos: manning999, Kimberly Brooke Photography

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