A Once-Dark Polaroid Factory Goes Green A shut-down Polaroid film factory in Massachusetts has gotten new life manufacturing flexible solar panels. It's just one example of a green industry that advocates say could use government support to spur job growth and help the environment.

A Once-Dark Polaroid Factory Goes Green

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122230089/122242734" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


In this country, President Obama is promoting green jobs. They are supposed to help both the environment and the economy, but it turns out that new green jobs may simply replace older jobs.

NPR's Chris Arnold has the latest report in our series New Jobs For A New Decade.

CHRIS ARNOLD: Many old factories around the country now sit dark and empty. But at a once-defunct Polaroid film factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the lights are on again, and a new industry is rising up inside the ruins of an old one.

(Soundbite of machineries)

Mr. RICK HESS (CEO, Konarka): We make what's called plastic solar cells, we call it power plastic.

ARNOLD: Rick Hess is the CEO of Konarka, it's a company that makes solar panels but not like any you have probably seen before. These are thin, flexible plastic sheets, they are lightweight and some are transparent, so they can be built into windows to let homes or office buildings generate their own solar power. Or, the material can be sewn onto a bag or briefcase and even something that small will generate electricity.

Ms. HESS: It's not to charge cell phones or iPods or things like that.

ARNOLD: Oh really, you could charge a cell phone?

Mr. HESS: Oh, you could clearly charge your cell phone. I have a bag that I used today that I use to charge my cell phone.

ARNOLD: The equipment at this factory used to make big sheets of Polaroid film. Konarka converted it so that these same machines are now churning out these film-like solar panels. And the company has hired back about 20 of the former Polaroid workers to run the factory. So, it's given new green jobs to workers who had been laid off. Mike Page is an electrician and machine operator.

Mr. MIKE PAGE (Electrician, Machine Operator): You know, I invested my whole career at Polaroid, and I thought it was over. And now I feel renewed and I feel like I have a whole new future.

ARNOLD: Green jobs are a very big deal in Washington. President Obama had said that he wants to create five million new green jobs over 10 years.

President BARACK OBAMA: The nation that leads in clean energy will be the nation that leads the world. I want America to be that nation.

ARNOLD: And it's definitely an attractive idea. So, if you want the country to go green, when at the same time it needs a lot more jobs, green jobs seem like the perfect solution. But...

Mr. MICHAEL LEVI (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Even if we hit numbers, like five million jobs that people talk about - and that's quite plausible - that can only be a very limited piece of the puzzle in a country with several hundred million people.

ARNOLD: Michael Levi is a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. He says that proponents often only talk about the jobs that will be created � not the jobs that'll be lost. And the economy is a big interconnected system. So, here's an example: The country only needs so much electricity, but if more of that comes from wind power or solar power, less is going to come from coal. So, some coal miners would lose their jobs.

Levi says any time the government pushes the economy in a given direction, you'll gain jobs in some areas and lose them in others.

Mr. LEVI: Let's say I add five million jobs and I lose four million jobs elsewhere, and it's over 10 years. Within the grander scheme of things, it's other elements of economic policy that are going to change people's lives.

ARNOLD: There's also the question of what gets counted as a, quote, "green job." The numbers get very mushy here. What about electricians who already have a job, but who start installing more efficient furnaces � should those be counted as new green jobs? Levi thinks that many green jobs will really just be existing jobs that are shifted into this category.

Still, other experts see green jobs as a lot more important.

Mr. BRACKEN HENDRICKS (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress); This is at the center of the future of American competitiveness.

ARNOLD: Bracken Hendricks is a senior fellow at the liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress. He says, take the global auto industry. If companies here in the U.S. can come up with the best electric car technologies...

Mr. HENDRICKS: We're talking about who is going to own the growth of the auto industry, globally. In China, they're about to go from 65 million cars on the road to 300 million cars on the road.

ARNOLD: Basically, people's views on green jobs depend on their vision of the future. Congressman Ed Markey authored clean energy and green jobs legislation that was recently passed by the House.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): We have to think of this as the next great job-creating sector in the same way that we put the correct telecommunications policies on the books in the 1990s that led to an explosion of made in America brands - Google, eBay, Amazon.

ARNOLD: In the shorter term, the Obama administration is interested in giving Americans incentives to insulate their homes. The idea is to put thousands of contractors to work with insulation and caulk guns - so it's being called Cash for Caulkers.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

BRAND: Our series New Jobs for a New Decade continues tomorrow with a look at health care workers.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.