Just days after Toyota Motor Corp. teamed up with Tesla Motors Inc. and the electric car company bought the abandoned NUMMI plant in Fremont, President Barack Obama came to Silicon Valley to make a point.
After touring the plant of another rising star of the region, Solyndra Inc., Obama vowed to support such cleantech innovators taking root in the region.
“The future is here,” Obama told the construction workers, company leaders and officials gathered in Fremont.
“We’re poised to transform the ways we power our homes and our cars and our businesses. And we’re poised to lead our competitors in the development of new technologies and products and businesses. And we are poised to generate countless new jobs, good-paying middle-class jobs, right here in the United States of America.”
If America doesn’t continue rapidly funding and innovating clean technology, the nation risks losing its position as the world’s economic leader, Obama warned.
The president came to Fremont on May 26 at the end of a two-day visit to Northern California while the nation watched the BP oil spill threaten the Gulf of Mexico. He toured the fabrication plant Solyndra is building in Fremont thanks to a $535 million loan received under the federal stimulus bill.
The federal loan has created 3,000 construction jobs and is projected to add 1,000 more permanent jobs. The plant will produce enough solar panels each year to generate 500 megawatts of electricity, akin to replacing eight coal-fired power plants over the lifetime of the plant.
California in general, and Fremont in particular, have been hammered by the economy and the closure of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant, Obama said. But the promise held by Solyndra and the new joint venture between Tesla and Toyota includes green job creation that will reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
The president said that the solar equipment company, as well as electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, are evidence that alternative energy is no longer the stuff of a science fiction future.
“Around the world, from China to Germany, our competitors are waging a historic effort to lead in developing new energy technologies. There are factories like this being built in China, factories like this being built in Germany,” the president said, adding that nobody is playing for second place.
Those nations, he said, realize those that lead the cleantech economy will lead the global economy.
“If we fail to recognize that same imperative, we risk falling behind,” Obama said.
Just 15 years ago, America produced 40 percent of the world’s solar panels; by 2008, the country’s share had fallen to just over 5 percent, he said.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m not prepared to cede America’s leadership in this industry, because I’m not prepared to cede our leadership in the global economy,” Obama said. “That’s why we’ve placed a big emphasis on clean energy. It’s the right thing to do for our economy.”
The impact of Solyndra’s fab construction has spread to 22 states that are manufacturing products for the facility, while workers in a dozen states are building advanced manufacturing equipment Solyndra will use in the plant.
From solar to battery driven
Turning his attention down Interstate 880 to the NUMMI plant, the president noted that America is rapidly evolving as a leader in advanced battery development — the kind of which will power the vehicles that will be made by Tesla and Toyota in a historic partnership announced May 20. While the initial closure was devastating to the local and regional economy, a Department of Energy loan gave Tesla the ability to expand. And that’s just the beginning of the story, the president said.
What comes next will produce even more jobs.
Before the Recovery Act, America produced less than 2 percent of the world’s advanced batteries. Within five years, Obama said, he believes that number will increase to 40 percent as demand for electric vehicles increases.
The country is also investing in a smart grid for cars to plug into.
The smart grid is being developed in Silicon Valley as the region continues to evolve and recreate itself.
“We’ve reinvented ourselves several times, first from defense to the Internet, and now comes smart energy,” said Anders Axelsson, senior vice president at Echelon Corp.
Echelon makes products that help device manufacturers, integrators and end users implement energy control networks.
“By being on the innovation side of this, we are in the beginning of what the smart grid can do,” Axelsson added. “It’s going to create an enormous amount of jobs.”