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Solar Maker Gets $58 Million From Mass., Shutters Plant

Wed, 01/12/2011 - 3:25am
Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) — A solar panel manufacturer that benefited from $58 million in state aid to open a factory at a former Massachusetts military base is closing the plant and laying off 800 workers.

Evergreen Solar Inc. announced Tuesday it is shutting down the Devens plant by the end of the 2011 first quarter.

Gov. Deval Patrick had heralded Evergreen as key to the state's economic future in clean energy. Economic Development Secretary Greg Bialecki said the administration is disappointed by the closure and will work to recover any money Evergreen owes the state.

"The company has worked hard to compete against heavily subsidized foreign competition and to live up to its commitments to the commonwealth," Bialecki said in a statement. "For our part, we must now ensure that impacted workers receive the resources they need to make successful transitions."

Evergreen CEO Michael El-Hillow said dropping prices and competition from heavily subsidized solar manufacturers in China made the plant "no longer economically feasible." The company will continue to run facilities in China and Midland, Mich.

Evergreen reported losses of $265 million in 2009, and $54 million through the first nine months of 2010.

The company had become a centerpiece of Patrick's plans to boost the state's renewable energy sector. He repeatedly trumpeted Evergreen's initial success and its plans to keep manufacturing jobs in the state.

The company benefited from $58 million in state aid in 2007, including about $45 million in direct aid and an additional $13 million that went to the town to help build the infrastructure to support the company.

Just two years later, the company began to show signs of trouble in Massachusetts, announcing it was moving some jobs to China.

Under what are called "clawback provisions" in the grants, the state is working to "recover any and all dollars owed to the commonwealth," Bialecki said.

Clawback provisions can require a company to repay all or a portion of a grant if they fail to meet promised goals, including maintaining certain levels of jobs in the state.

Although the decision by Evergreen to shutter the Devens plant is a blow to the state and the Patrick administration, officials tried to paint the best picture they could.

Even without Evergreen Solar, Bialecki said, Massachusetts leads the nation in clean energy and innovation, with employment in clean energy companies increasing 60 percent from 2007 to 2010.

In solar manufacturing and installation, employment is up 145 percent, not counting Evergreen, he said.

But critics faulted Patrick for trying to pick winners and losers in the private sector using taxpayer dollars.

"This should serve as a lesson to Gov. Patrick that throwing money at companies in industries he approves of won't necessarily translate into success," House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, said in a statement.

"Instead of focusing on stimulating one particular industry, Gov. Patrick and Lt. Gov. (Tim) Murray should turn their attention to creating an economic climate where all businesses can succeed and thrive," he added.

Overall, the administration said, employment in "clean energy" jobs has grown by 59 percent during the past four years, from 6,400 jobs in 2007 to 10,100 in 2010, not counting Evergreen jobs.

In solar manufacturing, installation and development, the number of jobs has grown from 839 in 2007 to 2,000 in 2010, again not counting Evergreen.

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