Friday, February 11, 2011

Where are Wisconsin's 600 Green Jobs?

Three years ago, Energy Composites Corp. in Wisconsin Rapids announced it would build a wind-turbine manufacturing plant that could generate hundreds of jobs. But a lack of financing and a flooded market have delayed construction and resulted in zero new jobs as of January, Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Mary Jo Carson said.

Now another energy company is making similar claims regarding job creation, but its leaders are confident they have a competitive edge that really will bring 600 new manufacturing jobs to the area by 2015.

W Solar Group, a California-based business relocating its headquarters to Dane County, has said it is interested in building its manufacturing plant in Wausau. As of Friday, company leaders had not made a decision about where they would build.

Regardless of where the company lands, it has a technology that allows it to produce solar panels cheaper than its competitors, which in turn will drive demand and create the need for hundreds of jobs at the plant, W Solar spokesman Evan Zeppos said.

"It's an industry that has a huge growth factor and a huge international marketplace where our products will be," Zeppos said.

Local and state leaders also have shown confidence in W Solar, founded in 2009.

Former Gov. Jim Doyle's office in December announced W Solar will receive up to $28 million in tax credits from the Department of Commerce to build its manufacturing plant and relocate its headquarters in Wisconsin.

Those credits are tied directly to job creation, meaning the company has little to gain by overstating the number of positions it will create, Zeppos said.

In Wausau, Mayor Jim Tipple said the city has been in discussions with W Solar since last summer, but that nothing has been formalized.

Tipple said the city is waiting for W Solar to make a decision on where to build before hashing out any possible development collaboration between the two.

He said the city has touted its quality of life, education system and infrastructure, including its newly reconstructed and centrally located highway system.

How the W Solar agreement could ultimately play out if the company chooses Wausau is unknown, but Tipple said past agreements with other developers always include requirements they meet job projections or show they can repay loans.

"Let's say someone says they can grow 50 jobs in the next five years," Tipple said. "A developer will low-ball that and if they don't own up to something, they may have to repay something if it's a grant or loan. We ask them to underestimate to make sure they meet the requirement."

In Wisconsin Rapids, Energy Composites' project came to a standstill because it struggled to secure funding when the recession hit, Carson said. She said it's critical to make sure a new business has the proper financial support before getting into an agreement.

Energy Composites since has revamped its plan and will build its new facility in phases, Carson said. That will mean fewer jobs initially, and likely no more than 400 when the project is completed, she said.

The city's government entered into a development agreement that included a $5.3 million incentive plan, but since Energy Composites has altered its timeline, the city is likely to do the same this year.

"There's huge disappointment," she said. "Obviously, I would not say it has become a frustration that is out of control, but there is a certain amount of disappointment."

Carson cautioned any city, including Wausau, not to enter into any agreement without laying out requirements that a company has to meet in an allotted amount of time.

W Solar, unlike Energy Composites, has secured enough funding to complete its first phase in Wisconsin to implement its business plan during the next two years, Zeppos said. Manufacturing is scheduled to begin in 2012, he said.

"We minimize as much risk as we can," Tipple said. "We're conservative, and most developers and companies are the same way."


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