Taking Away Lessons from Evergreen Solar

It was a headline that many in this region might have missed, lost amid the shootings in Arizona, a slew of snowstorms and subsequent cleanup efforts, and the area NFL franchise starting the offseason much earlier than expected. But it certainly bears noting.
Evergreen Solar, the solar-panel maker that opened a plant at the former military base in Devens just two years ago, amid considerable fanfare and with state aid to the tune of $58 million (one of the largest packages ever awarded in Massachusetts), announced on Jan. 12 that it would be shuttering that facility, thus eliminating about 800 jobs. That news was bad enough, but it got worse when the company said, in essence, that it was a victim of weak demand and competition from China, and would be shifting work to that country, where it also has a plant. Company officials would say only that this was “a grueling decision for any management team to make.”
The announcement must have sent shockwaves through the Statehouse, where the Patrick administration, which worked hard to bring Evergreen here, touted the company as perhaps the best example statewide of the emergence of clean-energy technology as a source of both new jobs and economic development, and as a indication that the Commonwealth’s shrinking manufacturing base could in fact diversify itself and find new avenues for growth.
What’s more, state officials cited Evergreen as a fine illustration of how state incentives could be effectively put to use to create jobs, drive innovation, and stimulate momentum at a time of economic duress.
So much for all that.
In the wake of the announcement, state officials searched hard for a silver lining to these clouds (no pun intended), but couldn’t find any. Instead, they were left to start backpedaling on the dollar amounts actually given to Evergreen (so the damage might not look as great), tallying up all that the corporation will have to give back to the state — $3 million in direct grants and perhaps $20 in future tax breaks — because it didn’t meet the terms stipulated in the aid agreement, and offering some hope that the many infrastructure improvements (mostly new roads) undertaken as a result of the project would benefit future endeavors.
But in the end, this is a huge setback for the state, one that will definitely leave a mark — and no shortage of skeptics to question the next clean-energy deals to come down the road.
In the end, though, no mistake is a complete loss if people can learn from it. What can we learn for this?
For starters, don’t put so many eggs in one basket. This is easy to say in hindsight, but a lot of people were saying it before the state handed over nearly $60 in incentives. Many were questioning the strength and longevity of the solar-panel business and casting doubts about whether this country could compete, cost-wise, with China on such products, despite public-sector support.
The conventional thinking then (and even more so now) would be that $58 million would be much better-spent on many different initiatives with promise. Some would not have worked out, but, undoubtedly, some would have. By going all in — or close to that — on Evergreen, the state left itself vulnerable to a big hit, and that’s what happened.
The other big lesson: don’t give up on clean-energy ventures. The Evergreen meltdown will undoubtedly leave the state gun-shy when it comes to future opportunities of this kind, and while an extra dose of caution, or two, is in order, there is no need to abandon this emerging sector and leave it to other states, regions, or countries.
There are a number of former manufacturing hubs, like Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, and others, that are still at the beginning stages of the reinvention process. Clean-energy developers can still play a big role in that process.
Like the Patriots’ debacle against the Jets, the Evergreen Solar experience is a tough and, in some ways, embarrassing loss for the Commonwealth. It will be interesting to see if and how it bounces back.

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