Mississippi, Land of Green Jobs?

Thin-film solar startup Stion announced the grand opening of its first large-scale factory in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Where? Mississippi?

Stion is joined by a handful of green manufacturers locating to the state because of its low taxes, low labor rates and generous government subsidies.

Other companies opening factories there:

  • Calisolar: makes polysilicon for solar cells ($75 million)
  • Kior: a biofuels company ($75 million)
  • Twin Creeks Technologies: makes thin wafers for solar cells ($54 million in state assistance); 
  • Soladigm: makes energy efficient windows ($44 million)

Those companies are mostly based in California, but GreenTech Automotive is headquartered in Mississippi and plans to manufacture electric cars there too.

Mississippi may not be thrilled with using renewable energy but it likes the jobs it creates. Thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of manufacturing jobs will be created by these companies. 

Because of that, the state is dishing out $323 million in subsidies to lure green manufacturers. Mississippi’s top corporate tax rate is just 5% and offers tax holidays and low interest loans. 

Calisolar’s $75 million incentive package includes grants, workplace training and a $59.5 million low-interest loan, says the New York Times

Plus, the state has low labor costs. The average manufacturing salary is $33,000. 

South Carolina is also getting into the act. Its incentives lured California-based AQT Solar to build a plant that will produce a gigawatt of solar panels a year by 2014.

The deep South has shown little interest in using renewable energy. None of the states have a Renewable Energy Standard and strongly resisted a National Renewable Energy Standard when energy policy was under consideration in the last Congress.  

Yet, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is the driving force behind efforts, says the NY Times.

Stion and Calisolar have both committed to paying higher than average salaries – about $45,000 plus benefits. 

They can pay higher salaries because their advanced manufacturing processes require fewer employees. Stion says it can manufacture 100 megawatts (MW) of solar cells with only 200 employees – a similar plant in China might need 1,000 people. And Stion plans to source the majority of its components from US vendors.

Stion recently demonstrated the world’s most efficient production-scale thin-film circuit, which was verified at 14.1% by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).

But, if not for Mississippi, that might not be enough for a solar company to survive these days given the competition from China – especially for a young start-up.

US green manufacturers are having a tough time competing with low cost Chinese competitors, which are backed by strong goverment policy and financial support. Over the last six weeks, three solar companies declared bankruptcy – Solyndra, SpectraWatt and Evergreen Solar

Stion’s 100 megawatt (MW) thin-film solar plant is expected to create 200 solar jobs over the next 15 months during phase one.  The full build-out to 500 MW will create about 1,000 jobs over the next six years and cost roughly $500 million. 

Stion has a strategic partnership with Taiwan Semiconductor, the world’s largest dedicated semiconductor foundry. India’s Moser Baer is  one of its high profile investors.

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