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News / Business / Clark County Business

Sen. Maria Cantwell: CHIPS and Science Act is good investment in Southwest Washington

Biden administration has opened up $49B in funds to boost semiconductor manufacturing and research

By Carlos Fuentes, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 5, 2023, 6:00am
2 Photos
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., listens during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in February.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., listens during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in February. (Mariam Zuhaib/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

Tech manufacturers across the country are rushing to apply for some of the $49 billion in funds that the Biden administration recently opened up through the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act to incentivize domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research.

Companies are applying in droves, including some with heavy manufacturing ties in Southwest Washington, such as Analog Devices and HP.

The federal government passed the act last year in hopes of increasing U.S. production of the massive advanced chip industry. In the last three years, American companies have pledged almost $200 billion toward chip-manufacturing projects.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., played a key role in passing the bill, speaking on the Senate floor on five separate occasions in 2022 as chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Cantwell spoke with The Columbian about the CHIPS Act and what it means for jobs, rural communities, and the future of tech manufacturing in Southwest Washington.

In a press release, you said that the act is expected to create almost 300,000 jobs nationwide. How many jobs will this create in Washington and specifically in Southwest Washington?

One of the things that people should understand is that the Pacific Northwest is 15 percent of all semiconductor jobs in America. So we already are a little tub — right there in Southwest Washington and on the other side of the river — for semiconductor manufacturing and development. So what we want to do is keep investing in that little concentration that we already have.

We already are part of an ecosystem that is both the research and development and the manufacturing and the companies that use them and ancillary technology. So it’s something we want to keep growing. And so we think that there’ll be people in our state that will apply for these dollars, and we think there’ll be institutions that will also apply for dollars to enhance the job training and skill development for people in our area, so that we can even grow those roughly 40,000 jobs into an even higher number.

The Portland metro area and Clark County are areas where it seems firms have operated for years but haven’t seen that much expansion. Does this act make our area more competitive, and how so?

In general, guess what’s happened? You haven’t seen a lot of expansion in the United States anywhere. That’s the issue. We really didn’t see that much expansion in the United States, and these companies expanded their manufacturing footprint to overseas markets. And now what this bill is trying to do is to bring that manufacturing supply chain back to the United States. So while you might think it might have been a little less development in Southwest Washington, that same scenario was happening in other places around the United States.

So now, this is a big calling card to say, “Come and invest in the United States. Here’s some research-and-development revenue from the United States to help attract further private-sector investment and to stimulate the best science around semiconductors.” So we hope that will mean a growth in that employment base in our region.

You mentioned that 15 percent number earlier. What makes this area specifically a good place for big companies to come and grow here?

Affordable electricity, a skilled workforce and proximity to the customer base. The companies that are already in Southwest Washington, we already have some manufacturing, and they’ll create a larger workforce. And so what companies want to know are, do the universities have clean rooms that they can model some of the manufacturing off of and help give students the best possible experience? And we do, with WSU and the University of Washington.

Being close to your customer base is also an important thing. The Northwest is full of technology companies and the next generation, whether you’re talking about aviation or automotive, or a whole variety of things. You learn from talking to your customers about what’s next to them, so being in close proximity to them is also valuable. I think it’s one of the great things about us in the Northwest. … It creates an environment where the innovation and the innovative ideas flow pretty freely and are easier to flow because you’re in the same area.

There’s been a lot of talk about big corporations like Intel being cutthroat for the funds. Can you talk a little bit about the application process and how it will ensure that funds are distributed fairly?

I know that the secretary of commerce has gone to extraordinary lengths to set up this program and to make sure that she has the workforce. That is the skill set at the Department of Commerce — to make sure that this is done in the correct oversight way. And so it’s definitely gonna have a lot of scrutiny and a lot of oversight, and the application process, you can see they took a lot of time to make sure it was done correctly.

Here in Southwest Washington, there are a lot of rural communities and small towns. How will this affect them?

The key thing is that people want some solutions on agriculture. Everything has gotten to be more expensive, and farmers want applications that really are empowered by more semiconductors, whether it’s water AI that tells you exactly how much water you need per acre, or whether it’s in precision agriculture, just in general.

Somebody gave us an example of when you can use precise agriculture equipment to do your planting. You can even save so much on fuel and fertilizer, which are big costs these days. So these applications of AI are very interesting. Farmers are hearing a lot from specifically WSU about this, and we’re hearing from farmers who want any solution to drive down the cost.

Is there anything else about the act that you think specifically speaks to Washington residents?

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Southwest Washington was already a pioneering place for U.S. manufacturing in chips, so now the second round is coming, and we want them to show that they’re ready and poised to help make this happen again. It’s been a little sleepy here, but that was the same thing in a lot of other places in the United States. How come this didn’t grow more here in South Washington? Because it was growing in China and other places. But now it has a chance to come back here and grow here.

That’s what the bill was all about, saying that the United States is a great place to do this, that we are going to have the best next-generation chip technology. We’re going to have the best workforce. We’re going to continue with applications that really are very vital applications for farming or aviation, or automobile transportation. It’s a whole different mindset.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Columbian staff writer