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Industry glut clouds solar job forecast

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008


STATEWIDE Solar power remains a narrow bright spot within the gathering gloom of Oregon’s job market. But the picture grows a little hazier when you factor in the competition.

State leaders have poured millions of dollars into subsidizing solar installations and photovoltaic manufacturing. Oregon is expected to become the nation’s leading manufacturer of solar cells by next year. SolarWorld, Solaicx, Peak Sun Silicon and promising Intel spin-off SpectraWatt are hiring production workers, financial analysts, engineers and technicians.

Rumors have been circulating for months that even larger solar manufacturers are also eyeing Oregon, including Sanyo Solar USA LLC, a pioneer in using amorphous silicon to improve efficiency. All of which could add up to thousands of new jobs in an economy reeling from a protracted slowdown in building, manufacturing and timber.

But Oregon is far from unique in shooting money at the sun. New manufacturing plants continue to pop up in China, Singapore, India and South Korea, not to mention Arizona, Massachusetts and New Mexico. Competition should bring prices down over time, boosting the market, but in the shortterm solar is nowhere near competing with wind power, much less coal, without subsidies.

This is a problem because subsidies are expiring in the world’s top three solar markets, Germany, Spain and the United States. Experts at a recent conference in Valencia, Spain, attended by Oregon officials estimated that supply will double demand by 2010; some went so far as to declare that the solar bubble has burst.

Oregon officials insist that is not the case. But they do find themselves wagering heavily on something beyond their control: an extension of federal investment tax credits for solar projects. A recent report commissioned by the Solar Energy Industry Association estimates that extending the tax credits through 2016 could create 440,000 jobs nationally and 10,000 in Oregon.

“The reality is that Oregon’s strategy is fairly dependent on the outcome of federal solar policy,” notes Christopher Dymond, senior energy analyst for the Oregon Department of Energy. Still, as Dymond sees it, the question for solar is not if but when. “Oregon’s current slight lead gives us the edge,” he argues, because “most other states are just waking up to the economic benefit of manufacturing local renewable energy systems.”



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