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Learning by example: What California can learn from Michigan

With upcoming elections, a budget crisis threatening to swallow public education, renewed concern about the vitality of industry, and protests condemning economic inequality, California needs a concrete and comprehensive plan to recover from this deep recession.  

The best solution won’t just fix one problem at a time, but will tie them together, tethering public sector companies to private sector investment and university involvement.  It’s working in Michigan, where the state established Centers of Energy Excellence to take advantage of available raw materials to create lithium ion batteries, better battery technology, and jobs – all in one fell swoop. It can work in California with solar energy.

First, solar energy is a raw material that is not just abundant, but limitless. We don’t need to get it from other countries. We don’t need to destroy our farmland to find out. We don’t pollute the environment by using it. It is perfectly sustainable, and it is the raw material that can help make California’s economy shine brightly again.

Second, the state government needs to attract private investment in the solar energy field. Even absent federal support, California can and must draw the solar energy industry near. In many ways, it already has: The Bay Area is home to several solar energy companies, but there should be more statewide. Although the failed example of Solyndra figures prominently on the solar energy horizon, one failed example plagued by unfortunate circumstances should not stop California from pursuing valuable opportunities. California needs to attract clean energy companies at the state level by providing grants and tax credits to for-profit solar energy companies that set up shop in the state. Certainly the state should do its due diligence before awarding grants to any company. But the nature of this three-pronged plan ensures a high level of scrutiny.

Indeed, the third aspect of the plan is that funding will only go to those for-profit companies that have secured participation by an institution of higher learning.  In Michigan, any university or national laboratory is enough to pass this third hurdle. In California, the state should require participation by a state school. The benefit of this requirement is threefold.

University involvement mandates continued technological research and scientific growth. It also reifies the importance of public education, creates leaders in the field of solar energy, and keeps money flowing into schools’ nearly empty coffers. Finally, it provides an extra level of screening for the state, as universities must exercise care in choosing companies with which they align themselves.

With the public and private sectors intertwined through this plan, California should insist not just on declaring solar energy standards for the near future, but on actually meeting those goals. It should require threshold levels of solar energy by county or by municipality, then reward those local governments that actually meet those levels.  

The public, private, and education sectors are all struggling, and it will take work – and state spending – to fix them. Blending public and private funding is one way to stimulate the economy while ameliorating economic inequality by letting everyone benefit. Tying the three sectors together has worked in Michigan, and it can work in California.

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