The controversy that wasn’t such a controversy By Chris Madison

About two weeks ago, a U.S. company, U.S. Renewable Energy Group, caused a stir when it announced it was forming a joint venture with a Chinese company, A-Power Energy Generation Systems, to build a wind farm in Texas. The turbines would come from China, and one participant said the project wouldn’t have been possible if Congress had not passed a program of grants to encourage development of renewable energy.

The deal was criticized by some labor groups and by Sen. Charles Schumer of New York because it suggested using economic recovery funds to buy wind turbines manufactured by Chinese workers at a time when Americans need the jobs.

This week, the two companies issued another announcement about a separate deal to build a turbines manufacturing plant in the United States. They also said that in the case of the earlier deal, the intent had always been to import some parts of the turbines, and to manufacture other parts in the United States.

Sen. Schumer applauded the second announcement. “This is exactly what stimulus funding ought to do: create and strengthen green manufacturing jobs in America… We still maintain no stimulus money should be used to manufacture wind turbines in China.”

Was this a manufactured controversy, a PR effort gone haywire or simply mixed signals? There is no way to tell. But it does illustrate how much is still misunderstood about the U.S. wind energy industry, especially its manufacturing arm. And how easy it is to say the wrong thing at the wrong time in Washington.

The Obama Administration managed to stay above the fray. In the publication Green Energy Reporter, Matt Rogers of the Department of Energy was quoted today as saying, "Basically it’s a non-issue. "

As Rogers pointed out (and AWEA has stressed repeatedly), the U.S. wind power is increasingly manufacturing key components in the United States–over 50% now, up from about half that just a few years ago. But it takes time to build a manufacturing base, and there has to be a reliable domestic market for the goods. One reason the wind industry has been pushing so hard for a strong renewable electricity standard is that it would create an incentive for turbine manufacturers to locate here. That would mean more wind energy, and fewer carbon emissions, and more jobs.

"We all want to create more jobs here in the U.S.," said AWEA CEO Denise Bode in a statement this week. "One hundred percent of the ARRA funding for the wind sector has gone to projects that are installed and operate here in the U.S., spurring new wind farm development and supporting thousands of local jobs. What’s more, we have made great strides in U.S. wind turbine and turbine component manufacturing production–up 12-fold from 2004. "

As for the statements coming from U.S. Renewable Energy Group, wind industry analysts were puzzled. The joint venture for a U.S. manufacturing plant has been in the works for some time; why didn’t they announce it at the time they announced the Texas wind farm project? And if they always planned to install U.S. -made blades and towers at the Texas wind farm, with only nacelles coming from abroad (not an uncommon configuration), why didn’t they announce that, too? Why start an unnecessary controversy?

Surely, it was not just an effort to make Sen. Schumer look good.