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Globe Editorial

Evergreen Solar’s failure shows US weakness in clean energy

August 18, 2011

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LIKE GENERALISSIMO Francisco Franco, Evergreen Solar spent a long time on its death bed. Deval Patrick’s favorite energy company finally succumbed to Chapter 11 this week. Creditors include the state of Massachusetts, owed $1.5 million in back rent. But it’s likely that as much as $40 million in state subsidies will be lost as well.

Every one of the firm’s death throes has been an occasion for critics of Patrick’s energy policies to inveigh against the practice of singling out individual companies for state assistance. And it bears repeating that state officials should study Evergreen Solar closely to see if there were any clues that might have exposed its vulnerability sooner.

But the underlying goal of investing in renewable energy, and seeking to attract the right companies to make Massachusetts an energy-industry capital, is not only honorable but essential. As the world shifts away from fossil fuels, those who control the most advanced renewable-energy technology and the most efficient means of manufacturing will reap endless benefits. Global investments in clean-energy technology soared by 33 percent last year compared to the year before, topping $243 billion. Renewable energy offers the best hope for an economic boom in the coming decades.

Those who feel this can be accomplished without clean-energy goals and incentives are ignoring reality. China and Germany, with vastly smaller economies, invested more in clean energy than the United States last year. It was Chinese competition that ultimately doomed Evergreen Solar. Americans who tout the old nostrum that all businesses need is a level playing field forget that the energy sector has never been level; the heavily subsidized and regulated oil and gas industries attest to that.

What gave the state’s investment in Evergreen Solar its air of futility wasn’t the folly of developing solar-energy technology in Massachusetts; it was the idea that little Massachusetts, with its handful of millions in economic-development resources, could compete against China by itself.

Right now, the United States accounts for a depressingly small fraction of the clean-energy investments in the world ($34 billion out of the $243 billion, according to a Pew/Bloomberg survey), and this from a nation that’s the largest economy, greatest consumer of energy, and home to the world’s finest universities. It’s a staggering failure that can only begin to be remedied by setting a national goal for clean-energy consumption, similar to the one already in place in Massachusetts. That would give investors greater confidence that there will be a market for clean-energy products, unlocking private-sector resources.

If the United States falls further behind, it won’t mean that Patrick was wrong to promote energy companies. It will be an indictment of the federal government for allowing short-term concerns about energy prices to so dominate the political debate that long-term investments weren’t made.