With Evergreen Solar, Massachusetts dreamed of kickstarting a new economy

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“I’ve said all along, if Massachusetts can get clean energy technology right, the world will be our customer. Evergreen Solar is one of the companies that’s going to help us get clean energy right. I am proud that my economic development and energy and environmental affairs teams were able to help Evergreen Solar grow and thrive right here in Massachusetts, and give us a head start toward building a clean energy economy.”

– Governor Deval Patrick, April 17, 2007 Press Release

In previous posts, I’ve looked at why Massachusetts failed to see looming problems with Evergreen Solar and how competition with other bidders drove state employees to scramble to appease Evergreen negotiators . Another narrative arc also helps explain why the Commonwealth invested its resources so heavily in Evergreen Solar: The hope and promise of a new economic growth sector that aligned perfectly with crowd-pleasing sustainability efforts. With green manufacturing, board members were promised they could have their cake and eat it, too.

The pro-environmental message of solar manufacturing was, as previously reported, a driving force behind the state’s support for Evergreen: In one MassDevelopment meeting, the then-Secretary of Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development said that “renewable energy is a top priority of the Administration”.

But the vision went deeper than just a preference for environmentally friendly business: The administration was determined to capture and kickstart this still-unproven (and, down the road, imploding) sector, with Evergreen Solar only serving as the tip of the economic iceberg for what was planned.

Meeting minutes from the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency (MassDevelopment) underscore this vision as concerns about the funding processed were raised – and then dismissed.

From August 20, 2007 MassDevelopment Meeting Minutes, with emphasis added:

[Board Vice President] Joseph Craven agreed that the Agency was the proper conduit for the funds, but he wondered if this transaction wasn’t setting a precedent. MassDevelopment is not in the business of providing large grants, and it should not be perceived as such. Mr. Craven wanted it made clear that this is a Commonwealth-based initiative. He felt it was very important to emphasize that it’s a government proposal and that MassDevelopment must remain neutral and transparent.

[…]

Mr. [Robert] Culver [President/CEO of MassDevelopment) reminded everyone that the circumstances surrounding this transaction are extraordinary and are undertaken in an effort to locate and sustain a renewable energy company in Massachusetts and to assist the Administration in attracting a renewable energy cluster to the Commonwealth, thereby increasing its competitiveness in this arena. Ms. [Katherine] Craven indicated that this deal needs to be narrowly construed, and assurances need to be put in place that there will be no repeats of the circumstances.

Throughout released documents, committee and board members often stress this point: That Evergreen Solar is a special case deserving bent rules, expedited processing and special attention not because of what the company is, but because of what it represents. Not just manufacturing, which has shown strength in Massachusetts, but green manufacturing. And so, as other sectors in Massachusetts scramble to find and train skilled labor for real, existing jobs, the Commonwealth is left to fight to take back millions in grants specifically earmarked for a company – and economic sector – that was based more on political dreaming than economic reality.

“Today marks a major step on the road to our clean energy future,” Governor Patrick said when he announced the solar energy grant package. “I am proud to share this day, and this road, with my friends at Evergreen Solar and NSTAR.” Next time, he might want to vet the road map his friends are selling a little more closely.