By Julie Schmit, USA TODAY
When Arizona economic development officials look across their state, they envision the Saudi Arabia of solar.
The state has sun, land, workers and proximity to California, the biggest solar market in the U.S.
Yet for years, Arizona has failed to attract the big solar manufacturers that build the mirrors, panels and other components for solar equipment. In the past three years, about 50 renewable-energy companies considered Arizona but opted to put plants — and jobs — in other states, says Barry Broome, CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council.
"We've lost every one of the projects to incentives offered by other states," Broome says.
Arizona hopes to improve its odds in what's become a pitched battle among states to nab renewable-energy companies, including those in the solar, wind and biomass sectors. Come January, Arizona will have $350 million in new incentives at its disposal to woo renewable-energy firms.
Renewable energy has emerged as the new frontier in economic development in the U.S. And states, such as Arizona, are rolling out tax breaks, job training and cash to try to capture a piece of the action and the job growth it promises.
"This is definitely the industry of the year from an economic-development standpoint," says William Becker, CEO of Incentives Advisors, which helps firms access and manage state incentives. "I've never seen such a rapid increase in the number of state programs for one industry."
The fervor is driven by expectations of increasing demand for renewable energy. States, especially California, are extending big incentives to consumers and businesses to go green. Two dozen states require electricity providers to supply more power from renewables, and a handful of other states have set renewable goals. Meanwhile, billions of dollars in venture capital is going to so-called clean-tech start-ups in everything from alternative fuels to energy storage and generation. The federal government has also dedicated more than $100 billion to the clean-tech industry via grants, loan guarantees and other incentives, says consulting firm Ernst & Young.
The payout is jobs. The Obama administration estimates that jobs in energy and environmental-related occupations will grow 52% from 2000 through 2016 vs. 14% for other occupations.
An even bigger economic payout comes when one new plant or industry attracts others. Spain's Gamesa opened its first wind-turbine plant in Pennsylvania in 2006. Forty companies in the state now make wind industry products, says John Hanger, secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Five years ago, "There were next to none," he says.
'Like going after Google'
The competition for clean-tech jobs has pitted neighbor against neighbor. "All of the states are competing, and some are out ahead of others," says Shawn Lesser, industry consultant at Sustainable World Capital.
Arizona's Broome need only look next door to New Mexico to see the new giant solar manufacturer, Schott Solar, that he wanted. In July, Schott closed a 225-employee plant in Massachusetts to streamline its manufacturing given the new New Mexico plant. Earlier this year, New York lured a future manufacturing plant and the corporate headquarters of SpectraWatt, a solar-cell maker, from Oregon.
Texas, which gave power-storage company Xtreme Power $2 million in seed money in 2007, stands to lose the bulk of Xtreme's future manufacturing to Michigan. There, the 100-employee Xtreme and a business partner are positioned for more than $100 million in state tax incentives to manufacture in a former Ford Motor plant — assuming federal incentives and private capital can also be raised.
"We pay more for these types of companies than we pay for anything else right now," says Adam Tkaczuk, industry specialist for New York state's Empire State Development. "It's like going after Google."
To lure Xtreme, Michigan lawmakers dropped the bar on how many jobs the project needed to create to get all the incentives. Initially, 2,000 jobs — 500 each year for four years — was the mark. That dropped later to 500 total. One factor in the change? Other states bidding for the venture had been "far more liberal," says Phil Horlock, CEO of Ford Motor Land Development, which is selling the land.
Xtreme's CEO, Carlos Coe, says he's confident the project will create more than 2,000 jobs. Yet Xtreme didn't want to take the risk of having to repay the state if it fell short. At the 500-job mark, that risk is minimal. "We didn't want to risk having to owe the state," Coe says. "That's not a good way to run a business."
States are using more than money to lure companies.
In Massachusetts, legislation is pending to streamline the process to site and permit wind-power developments. In 2008, New Mexico landed solar component maker Schott with an incentive package worth about $130 million. Building inspectors also were dedicated to the plant so that construction never had to wait for inspections, says Gerald Fine, CEO of Schott North America. That helped Schott get the plant running in less than a year — at least six months faster than normal, Fine says.
"When you're in a growth industry, that's what you want," he says. Schott employs 300 at the plant with expectations of up to 1,500 jobs.
Tennessee recently landed two production plants worth $1 billion from Hemlock Semiconductor and Wacker Chemie. Part of the state's sales pitch? It'll offset the cost of any future tax on carbon emissions for clean-energy companies.
The threat of a potential tax was the state's "biggest obstacle" to attract the companies, says Matt Kisber of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
Hemlock CEO Rick Doornbos says his main goal was to assure a low cost structure so that Hemlock can compete years from now with global rivals, including those in China.
Jobs don't always materialize
Many states require companies to produce a certain number of jobs over a certain time to get incentives. Some also require that the jobs pay a certain rate.
To be eligible for Arizona's new income tax credit, firms must pay at least 51% of their new full-time employees at least 125% of the median income in Arizona.
Last year, Oregon beefed up requirements for renewable-energy companies receiving a 50% tax credit to offset capital costs. The credits can be cut or denied if enough jobs don't materialize.
In the past, the state sometimes lost the value of its credits if a company closed its plant quickly, says Michael Grainey, renewable-energy adviser for the Oregon Business Development Department. "This is as close as we can get to a guarantee that the state gets a benefit," he says.
The cost of failed incentives runs high. In Michigan, just one-third of the jobs promised by companies getting state business-tax breaks from 1995 to the end of 2004 ever materialized, says a new study from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.
The recession and other market forces have already spurred layoffs in the sector. Wind turbine maker Gamesa employs 850 in Pennsylvania, down from about 1,200 a year ago, spokesman Michael Peck says. To comply with its state package, Gamesa committed to create 1,200 jobs by 2012, which it still expects to do, Peck says.
Even with the layoffs, Peck says Gamesa's investment has "exceeded all expectations."
That won't always be the case, says Steve Voeller, president of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a lobbying group. He expects many failures in the renewable-energy sector.
Instead of lowering taxes for one industry, states should cut taxes for all to increase their competitiveness, he says.
"Lawmakers are in no position to decide what's the next great industry," Voeller says. "There's a reason that the renewable-energy industry requires a lot of subsidies. It's not competitive."
Economic development officials counter that there's little choice but to offer incentives if other states do. Last year, Pennsylvania set up a $650 million fund to compete for renewable-energy development, Pennsylvania's Hanger says.
"Within 10 or 20 years, there'll be hundreds of thousands of people making solar equipment. The only question is where," Hanger says. "You either get in the game or go to a beach and watch the world go by."