In Richmond, a hands-on approach to energy tech

Just steps away from a museum honoring Rosie the Riveter – the fabled female factory worker who rolled up her sleeves and told World War II America “We can do it!” – dozens of business leaders, academics and government representatives gathered this week to discuss how the nation’s manufacturing base can get back that can-do attitude. Organized by Berkeley’s College of Engineering, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and materials science and engineering professor Ramamoorthy Ramesh, the Northern California Workshop for Energy Technologies featured a keynote address from former Michigan governor (and current Berkeley faculty member) Jennifer Granholm.

Jennifer Granholm (Steve Hockensmith photo)

In her speech, Granholm drew lessons from Michigan’s recovery after the near-collapse of the auto industry, emphasizing the need for businesses, governments and educators to work together.

“If we believed that we should be hands-off, that the invisible hand will take care of itself, that laissez-faire is a great idea for the United States for manufacturing, then we might as well wave the white flag,” Granholm said. “But I’m telling you that we need to have a hand in this, a not-so-invisible hand, if we are going to create jobs in advanced manufacturing in America.”

The day also featured addresses by Tom Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management and co-founder of OneCalifornia Bank, and Paul Willems, associate director of UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab’s Energy Biosciences Institute, as well as panel discussions and breakout sessions. The focus: identifying and addressing the barriers that hinder industrial development in California and the country as a whole, particularly when it comes to clean-energy technologies.

“This country is fantastic at innovating, but we’re not as good when it comes to commodity-level competitive manufacturing. So this workshop is almost like soul-searching,” said Ramesh. “How do we reinvent the process of manufacturing here? How do we create jobs? How do we make sure that Wells Fargo or Bank of America will invest in manufacturing in the U.S. rather than go to China or Malaysia or Thailand?”

The choice of venue – a Richmond conference center that was once an assembly plant for the Ford Motor Company – was far from random. The Craneway Pavilion is only three miles from UC’s Richmond Field Station, which has been chosen as the site for a new joint campus of UC and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The Richmond Bay Campus will consolidate biosciences programs that are currently scattered around the East Bay, thus fostering the kind of synergy and collaboration Granholm said was key to a manufacturing renaissance in Michigan.

According to Granholm, Michigan is projected to add 60,000 new jobs by 2020, a rebound she credits to the state’s Centers of Energy Excellence – “industry clusters” that were modeled on intensive business-government-academia partnerships she observed in Singapore and Sweden. Engineering dean Shankar Sastry said the Richmond Bay Campus will serve much the same purpose.

Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay agreed, predicting that the joint campus “will help to revitalize Richmond’s economy with a focus on advanced manufacturing and bioscience.” He said the announcement about it has already “spawn[ed] development and opportunities for partnering in education, training” and business growth.

In her speech, Granholm said that partnerships between academia, government and industry need to be expanded quickly in the United States – because many of the nation’s economic rivals around the world already have them firmly in place.

“They see our passivity as their opportunity, and they are eating us for lunch,” she said. “We can either be at the table or we can be on the table. And I, for one, prefer to dine.”