Why did Evergreen Solar backers miss the Chinese threat?

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In reviewing hundreds of pages of documents related to Massachusetts’ incentives for Evergreen Solar, decision makers made clear the risks of not investing: Passing on the proposal would lead to, officials stated, a loss of potential manufacturing jobs to other states or other countries while giving up a competitive position in an emerging manufacturing market that could set the Commonwealth back for years to come.

What is much less clear, however, is what concerns about Evergreen Solar’s viability were considered. For example, there is almost no mention made of rival Chinese solar manufacturers despite the fact that less than four years later the downward pressure these manufacturers placed on solar pricing would ultimately help push Evergreen Solar towards bankruptcy.

Reading through Evergreen Solar documents released by MassDevelopment in response to a public records request, the priority seemed to be focused instead on how well the publicly-traded company fit in with a loftier mission. From a special Massachusetts Development Finance Agency Board of Directors Meeting on August 22, 2007:

[The Secretary of EOHED] explained that the Governor has directed his Administration to enhance the renewable energy industry in the Commonwealth, for economic development purposes, as well as to further the expansion of clean energy use globally. Historically, Massachusetts has not had much presence in the clean, renewable energy industry and, as a result, has been unable to compete with other states. […] He reminded everyone that clean, renewable energy is a top priority of the Administration and that, if the vote is successful today, a groundbreaking will be scheduled for September 12.

When questions were raised about the particulars of Evergreen Solar’s financial strength, they were brushed aside. From the same meeting:

The Vice Chair wanted to know if the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development was comfortable with Evergreen’s financials, and whether this seemed to be a logical expansion for the company, and [the Secretary of EOHED] answered affirmatively. His office has researched the technology and is not worried.

In fact, nowhere in the 923 pages released by MassDevelopment could I find much concern about the actual health of the company at all nor the solar industry in general. A keyword search for China, for example, revealed just 3 mentions: Once as part of part of boilerplate legalese, once in a caption and finally in a section that illustrates China’s growing need for electrical power – highlighting it as a market opportunity for solar.

But it would be just four years later that Chinese competition would take a bulk of the blame for Evergreen Solar’s demise. Was this threat unforeseeable in 2007? Not quite: Even then, China’s solar energy boom was widely reported, with glowing features in the New York Times and Reuters. But even then, the cracks were starting to show: A Barron’s piece slammed the industry, even then, as a “red-hot bubble”.

It’s easy to say hindsight is 20/20, but why was the foresight willfully blind? Why was, after researching the technology and hopefully the industry, the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development “not worried”? It’s impossible to say for certain, but another response to a public records request might provide some insight.

When we queried the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center for “documents, including resumes, for employees employed at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative at any point during 2007, that demonstrate previous direct or indirect work experience related to the solar energy industry,” the response was short and sweet:

MassCEC does not possess the records you have requested.

Going through the rest of the records I did receive, however, officials did have at least overriding concern regarding Evergreen Solar: Losing the bid to another state, a specter which urged the decision makers to move “quickly” on the deal even as they felt pressured to ensure public funding was used to ensure a competitive proposal. More on that in a follow up post.