Doug Rainey is editor of the Delaware Business Daily. He attended the Bloom ceremony Wednesday and notes there is a lot at stake in this opening. He offers his thoughts.
Here is Doug Rainey’s commentary:
The mood was a little different this time around at the opening ceremony for the Bloom Energy Newark manufacturing site.
The ceremonial groundbreaking in the spring of 2012 was a celebration with a who’s who of Delaware business and government leaders in attendance.
Despite setbacks that were already apparent at Fisker Automotive, the Markell administration was riding high. The Bloom plant had the potential to employ upwards of 900 workers, with hundreds of additional jobs at suppliers.
Fast forward to October 2013, and the mood was all business. Fewer guests were on hand and security was tight. A guard was posted in front of the Bloom driveway and closely checked the guest list.
California-based Bloom did not make note of the ceremony on its website, perhaps a reflection of the Silicon Valley’s tendency to minimize publicity of small scale events.
Still, those in attendance saw the event as a reason for hope after a long string of well publicized setbacks.
The Bloom plant employs 80, with plans to add another 100 jobs. That is on track with agreements with the state, but is far less than many anticipated.
Meanwhile, at the state’s northeast edge, steel-maker Evraz announced plans to shutter its 375-employee site, as a soft market and competition from overseas took their toll. And the loan that would have led to production of Fisker cars at the former GM Boxwood plant is now up for auction, perhaps at pennies on the dollar.
At the center of the storm is Gov. Jack Markell, now in his final term and coping with a sluggish economic recovery and a jobless rate above seven percent.
Weighing on the Markell administration are opponents of a possible future neighbor to Bloom, the proposed $1.1 billion Data Centers project. The administration and the state’s business community are clearly worried that opposition from environmental activists and not-in-my-backyard forces will poison the state’s business climate in the eyes of companies looking to expand or move to the state.
The administration continues to face criticism over a deal that uses Delaware-built Bloom fuel cells to provide alternative energy, with Delmarva Power customers footing the bill.
A provision of the Bloom agreement lists the additional cost to Delmarva customers. A drop in energy prices has led to a more than $4 a month gap between the price of energy from Bloom fuel cells and other sources. If a referendum was held today, it is likely the deal would be rejected by Delmarva customers.
Delmarva officials point to other advantages of the Bloom fuel cells. The biggest would be their reliability and that could prove valuable in times of major outages.
The governor responded with a spirited speech without notes that touched on his priorities, education, jobs and Bloom as the future of manufacturing in a state that has lost its auto industry as well as a large chunk of its pharmaceutical sector with AstraZeneca paring its headcount in north Wilmington.
Bloom CEO K.R. Sridhar continued the theme, pointing to the vast potential of installing Bloom fuel cells in power deprived areas of the world. He was clearly proud of the effort to build the plant and build, a skilled, motivated workforce.
Still, there was an edge to the proceedings. A Bloom representative politely but firmly ended an interview, saying that there was no press availability.
Whether that wariness was tied to the price of its electricity to Delmarva customers or the ferocity of opposition to The Data Centers project was unclear.
In the meantime, the headcount at Bloom will be watched closely to see if the manufacturing site of the future can make up for more of the jobs that have been lost in manufacturing.
Doug Rainey is the editor of the Delaware Business Daily. Email Doug at
. Follow Doug on twitter: https://twitter.com/DougRaineyDE.