Nevada's notoriously sunny climate and enthusiastic state support weren't enough to save solar manufacturer Amonix, which closed its North Las Vegas plant earlier this week.
The plant, which opened 14 months ago, had been dormant since it laid off the bulk of its workforce in January. So its official closure didn't come as a surprise to UNLV professor Bob Boehm, director of the Center for Energy Research.
Most of the Amonix coverage focused on the substantial subsidies the company received from the federal government, including a $15 million grant authorized during the Bush administration. The state also paid for some workforce training.
For years, we've been hearing about the need to diversify the state economy. Renewable energy usually tops the list of potential growth industries. So what does the demise of Amonix mean for Nevada's green energy efforts?
It's definitely a setback, Boehm said. In addition to exposing a lot of our deficiencies -- the lack of a solid manufacturing infrastructure and a well-trained workforce -- the closure also legitimizes some of the reactionary rhetoric of the renewable energy opposition.
"There will be a lot of those people," Boehm said. "They are the same people who kept the U.S. from moving forward with this technology for so many years while China and Europe made progress. Now we're under the table. We're not even at the table anymore."
Boehm didn't work for Amonix, but he was familiar with its corporate struggles. Before they opened the North Las Vegas facility, they replaced their CEO. The new guy, Brian Robertson, died in a plane crash in December 2011, about a month before the layoffs. But the company was struggling before Robertson's death, Boehm said. Right now, the solar industry is a whirl of innovation and obsolescence. Amonix just couldn't hang on.
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of lessons to take away from the failure, Boehm said. Although the company floundered in the last two years, they came into Nevada with one of the strongest track records in the solar industry. Amonix wasn't some fly-by-night company that made off with corporate subsidies and skipped town. They were a good company that made poor decisions and suffered some bad luck.
The takeaway from this debacle is that the Silver State still has a long way to go before it can establish itself as a leader in the solar industry. The state needs to establish some skilled manufacturing in order to attract more solar production companies. But that will take a big investment in infrastructure and education.
Boehm talked to a recent graduate of the renewable energy program at UNLV. The student wants to work in manufacturing and wants to stay in Southern Nevada.
"He told me those two desires just couldn't work together," Boehm said.
It may be a long time before students like that have a place to work in Southern Nevada.