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Low costs in Asia sap green jobs in America

President Obama is spending $2.1 million to help Suntech Power Holdings build a solar-panel plant in Arizona. It will hire 70 Americans to assemble components made by Suntech’s 11,000 Chinese workers.

That gap shows the challenge Obama faces as he works to create “green” jobs. Asia makes more than half the world’s wind and solar energy equipment, and is gaining ground as U.S. factories lose out to cheaper labor and higher demand for clean energy. China for the first time topped the U.S. in wind-turbine manufacturing and installations last year, the Brussels-based Global Wind Energy Council said Wednesday in a report.

Obama is giving billions of dollars in tax breaks to the wind and solar industries to create jobs in the United States even as production expands faster overseas. First Solar Inc., the world’s largest maker of thin-film solar-power modules, won $16.3 million to add 200 manufacturing jobs at its Ohio plant, yet 71 percent of its planned factory growth will go to Malaysia. The company employs 4,500 globally.

“The cost of manufacturing here is too expensive compared to Asia,” said Guy Chaffin, chief executive officer of Elite Search International, an executive search firm in Roseville, Calif., that has found employees for Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar and Solar Millennium AG. “As far as a flood of good jobs coming to the U.S., we’re not seeing it.”

To compete for clean-energy jobs, the United States must create demand by capping fossil-fuel pollution that contributes to global warming, Carol Browner, Obama’s coordinator of energy and environment policy, said last week.

Obama backs a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions and establish a market in pollution allowances, a proposal that passed the House and has stalled in the Senate.

“Will batteries that power the next generation of hybrid cars come from South Korea or South Carolina?” Browner said. “The best way to take advantage of these opportunities is to put in place the right price signals here at home, create the demand here at home so that our companies will make the investment here at home.”

The U.S. solar industry added about 18,000 jobs last year, almost doubling total employment to about 40,000, said Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industry Association, a lobbying group in Washington.

About half those were in manufacturing, she said. Jobs in the wind industry held steady at about 85,000 last year, as a drop in manufacturing was offset by gains in installations and development, according to the Wind Energy Association.