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America Needs a Vibrant Clean Energy Manufacturing Sector

This week, the Brookings Institution released three papers with recommendations to revitalize the domestic manufacturing sector. One proposes the creation of a national network of advanced industries innovation hubs, which would “focus on cross-cutting innovation and technology deployment challenges …by drawing universities, community colleges, state and local governments, and other actors into strong industry-led partnerships.” Another paper calls for an annual, $150 million national “Race to the Shop” competition involving multidisciplinary proposals “to address the manufacturing workforce and skills challenges” of states and regions. Finally, the third paper, authored by ITIF President Robert Atkinson and ITIF Senior Analyst Stephen Ezell, recommends the designation of 20 U.S. “manufacturing universities,” which would receive an annual, federal award of at least $25 million and be obligated to “revamp their engineering programs much more around manufacturing engineering, with particular emphasis on work that is relevant to industry.” The release of the reports helps highlight the need not only for a robust domestic manufacturing sector in general, but a robust clean energy manufacturing sector in particular.

As Atkinson and Ezell note in their book, Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage, “Perhaps no canard has been more damaging to U.S. competitiveness than the notion that the United States will be okay if it gives up its manufacturing industries because it can seamlessly migrate up the value chain to knowledge-based industries.” Atkinson elaborates on this point in a recent blog post, writing, “As industrial production has moved overseas, the engineering, product development and technology innovation that are key components of manufacturing has gone with it. And it is getting worse. Countries like China and India are pumping millions into their R&D and university infrastructure, while adopting mercantilist trade policies that are only enhancing our loss of intellectual property and technical know-how.”

The danger is especially pronounced in the clean energy sector, which has seen a rash of high-profile bankruptcies in recent years, including Solyndra, Evergreen Solar, and A123 Systems, and a decline in the global share of solar exports from 30 percent in 2000 to just 7 percent today. In fact, ITIF Senior Analyst Matthew Stepp has pointed to “America’s failure to effectively support clean energy manufacturing” as one of three warning signs that the nation is losing the global clean energy race.

To be sure, the Obama administration deserves credit for implementing a series of promising manufacturing policy initiatives during the president’s first term, like the establishment of the Advanced Energy Credit for Manufacturers and the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. And MIT Technology Review notes that the White House has proposed “a series of measures to accelerate advanced manufacturing” under the leadership of Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council. But the Advanced Energy Credit for Manufacturers has since expired and the White House proposals have for the most part remained just that – proposals. Hopefully, the White House will take the Brookings paper recommendations to heart and redouble their efforts to strengthen domestic manufacturing in general and the clean energy manufacturing sector in particular.

Photo credit: Flickr via Creative Commons.

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