New Mexico pins hopes on solar power technology

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico has the potential to add several thousand more jobs over the next decade if it leverages its existing capacity to create high-tech innovations for the evolving solar industry, according to a California-based public policy group.

The American Jobs Project released its report Tuesday, touting New Mexico's connection to two national laboratories, research universities and abundant sunshine.

The nonprofit group's recommendations include improving access to capital and bolstering commercialization of innovations made at the labs and universities such as coatings and small flexible solar cells known as "solar glitter."

The report is based on dozens of interviews with members of the state's business community and those in the solar industry. It concludes that as energy development transforms and demand grows, New Mexico could support more than 6,800 direct jobs from manufacturing and materials development, indirect jobs from suppliers and jobs that result from spending in the local economy.

The jobs could range from electrical engineering technicians to materials scientists and industrial production managers.

"Policymakers can support these jobs by taking advantage of increasing global demand and overcoming barriers to industry growth," the report states.

Earlier this year, another report issued by the group focused on Wisconsin and the potential there for more jobs being supported by development of sensors and controls for the advanced energy industry. That report noted that Wisconsin, like New Mexico, had taken a hit when it came to manufacturing jobs following the recession.

According to the report, New Mexico has lost one-quarter of its manufacturing jobs and ranks near the bottom when it comes to manufacturing as a share of total employment.

The University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research helped guide the policy group as it studied competitive advantages in New Mexico.

Bureau director Jeff Mitchell said the idea isn't to compete with Chinese companies that are manufacturing traditional solar panels but rather to build the state's capacity to get in on the ground floor with technologies that have yet to hit the market.

Much of the focus in New Mexico over the past two decades has been to recruit existing businesses to the state. Mitchell said that type of economic development can just as easily be attracted away by another state offering more incentives.

He said creating an environment that supports high-tech innovation can be a more complex, long-term effort.

"If what you're looking at is something that's embedded in a much more complicated value chain that has an innovation aspect to it, that's much more difficult to lift up, pick up and reassemble in mass in China or somewhere else," Mitchell said.

New Mexico is already home to more than 2,500 solar jobs, with 29 percent being manufacturing-based, according to the report. Nationally, the state ranks eighth for its share of total solar employment.

New Mexico also has nearly 100 firms working in the photonics industry, according to the report.

Aside from the "solar glitter" developed by a former Sandia scientist, Sandia is home to the National Solar Thermal Test Facility, which supports the development of next-generation concentrating solar power.

At Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico, researchers are working on technology that converts light to energy. One project involves quantum dots that are tuned to absorb different parts of the solar spectrum.

"I think what's critical here is the suggestion that this is an industry that's going to continue to evolve and there's an opportunity to be involved before it becomes massively commercialized," Mitchell said.

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