Solar manufacturing is incredibly capital-intensive. For new solar fabs, like the Amonix plant near Las Vegas, and the Solexant plant near Portland, capital outlays are coming out to just over $500,000 per job created. Solexant, for example, will create about 200 jobs on a $107 million capital investment. Contrast that to the new Vestas wind turbine plant in Brighton, Colorado (a few miles northwest of Denver Int'l Airport), where 850 permanent jobs will be created with just $100 million of capital investment, or about $120,000 of capital outlay per job. So for less capital investment, the wind turbine plant is creating over four times as many new jobs as the solar fabs.
Unlike solar manufacturing, which requires heavily filtrated clean rooms and expensive printing and cutting equipment, much like a semiconductor fab, wind turbine manufacturing requires a lot of people. And if you're the sort who spends more time thinking about microeconomics than microbikinis, you'd say wind turbine manufacturing is labor-intensive.
The diameter of the largest turbine rotors has surpassed 400 feet, so the economics of production are very old-school, dependent on a lot of people converting raw materials into a large item. This is very different than manufacturing a 4 inch solar cell using machinery from semiconductor plants. Building the wind turbine takes a lot of people, building the solar cell a lot of capital equipment.
In addition to differences in manufacturing costs, wind turbines are expensive to ship. While Vestas has imported turbines here from its native Denmark, moving 400 foot wind turbines around is no small effort, and makes outsourcing manufacturing to Asia a very costly effort. Meanwhile, two of America's largest solar manufacturers, First Solar and SunPower, are building new facilities in Malaysia and the Philippines.
Now what's even more impressive about the wind turbine plant is how it compares to factories where other centralized, alternating current technologies are built. I posted a few weeks ago about the new steam turbine plant going up in Chattanooga that will cost $300 million to build, and produce all of 325 jobs. The Brighton wind turbine factory will produce about seven times as many jobs per capital dollar invested as the Chattanooga steam turbine plant.
While most economic development professionals, as well as politicians, are eager to pounce on anything that remotely looks like a "green job", it's becoming very clear that some green jobs are far more sustainable than others. While wind farms produce very few jobs, and are models of efficiency and productivity, a wind turbine plant is hard to outsource, and creates far more jobs per capital dollar invested than just about any electricity generation technology.