At first glance, Midland, Mich., where March temperatures can plunge as low as 20 degrees, seems an unlikely place for a major breakthrough in solar power technology.
But that's what happened in mid-September when giant Dow Corning announced a breakthrough in solar cell technology — one that could allow the nation's utilities, plants and homes to capture far more of the sun's vast store of sustainable energy.
Not only that, but the company, which is planning to invest $5 billion in various solar technologies, also said it will build a plant in a nearby township to manufacture monosilane gas that will make the photovoltaic cells in solar panels dramatically more efficient. All told, Dow Corning will be creating more than 300 permanent jobs at solar production facilities in its financially distressed home state.
That may seem like a pittance in a state that shed 42,900 jobs in August and is staggering under a 15.2 percent unemployment rate — the highest state rate in the United States. But Michigan, which is seeking to become an alternative energy leader under beleaguered Gov. Jennifer Granholm, sees many more solar industry jobs in its crystal ball — and it is not alone.
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From San Diego to Cape Cod, from Seattle to Birmingham, Ala., solar facilities and manufacturing are beginning to crop up like sunflowers in Kansas on a June day. Consider just a few of the burgeoning number of solar growth stories:
In Massachusetts, the number of jobs created by the Bay State's nearly 100 solar energy employers more than doubled from 2007 to 2008 — and the numbers are expected to skyrocket again this year, according to The Boston Globe.
Officials in Birmingham, Ala., expect that once flourishing producer of steel to become "an epicenter of solar power" in a new, green South, creating tens of thousands of jobs.
In Wixom, Mich., the Ford Motor Co. is converting a shuttered auto plant into a 320-acre green energy and clean technology business park. The facility will create 4,000 jobs compared to the 1,000 jobs lost when the plant closed — allowing a local solar energy company to produce more than 2.5 million solar panels.
The sun seems an ideal place to tap for the clean energy that will eventually reduce greenhouse gases and turn today's gray sky to tomorrow's blue.
The flurry of green energy activity should multiply if and when Congress enacts its pending omnibus climate change legislation.
The bill, full of subsidies, tax credits and mandates that will pump billions of dollars into companies producing ethanol, wind power, geothermal and other forms of sustainable energy, including solar.
All forms of clean energy are needed to combat the threatened catastrophe of rampant global warming, but solar power appears to be the crème de la crème in a crowded field — especially when you consider the Earth's current population of 6.4 billion people is expected to soar to nearly 9 billion.
Much of the population growth will occur in parts of the world that contain most of the people now living in extreme poverty — many of them now forced to grub for a meager subsistence that condemns them to chronic hunger.
All of the newcomers are likely to demand the abundant energy that will give them a chance to live the affluent life now enjoyed mainly by Americans and Europeans.
President Barack Obama recently observed that these expectations can be met only by "harnessing the power of clean, renewable energy to build a new, firmer foundation for economic growth." And, he added, we need to invest in "the development and deployment of solar technology wherever it can thrive." Words to live by — on a fully rejuvenated planet.
Read is a former publisher of The Wilson Quarterly, the journal of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.