State sticks with solar as price plummets

State sticks with solar as price plummets

1011_StateSticksWithSolarA flood of cheap Chinese imports is swamping the global market for solar panels, driving down prices dramatically, but Oregon officials say their investments in solar manufacturing remain solid.

“We’re feeling confident about the decisions that we’ve made as a state and the companies that have chosen to move here,” says Business Oregon Director Tim McCabe. “Everyone we’ve given an incentive to is still here and growing.”

The state has invested millions in SolarWorld in Hillsboro, Solaicx in Portland and Sanyo Solar in Salem. The latest recruit, California-based SoloPower, received a $20 million loan from the Oregon Department of Energy and $29 million in tax breaks to establish manufacturing in North Portland with plans to employ 500 people within five years. But those local subsidies are minuscule compared to the $30 billion the Chinese Development Bank lent to Chinese solar companies in 2010. Prices for solar panels have dropped by more than 30% over the past year as Chinese companies have established dominance.

SolarWorld executives have long railed against what spokesman Ben Santarris calls “the swamping of the markets by state-sponsored competitors.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) backed that charge with a sharply worded Sept. 8 letter to President Obama, warning that, without action, the U.S. solar industry and its  jobs “may disappear.”

SolarWorld’s 1,000-employee Hillsboro facility is the largest solar panel factory in North America. The company recently shut down its production plant in California and cut 186 workers. That move came days after the news that the much-hyped solar manufacturer Solyndra would declare bankruptcy — the largest of three summer bankruptcy filings by U.S.-based solar manufacturers.

Even hard-core solar supporters such as Glenn Montgomery of the Oregon Solar Energy Industry Association acknowledge that “the news in the industry has not been good.” But Montgomery and McCabe say it is important to consider specific technologies and business plans rather than assuming that all American-based manufacturers are in trouble. McCabe notes that two of the three companies that went bankrupt this summer tried and failed to get state support for a move into Oregon, only to fail to clear due diligence tests. The companies that did receive state support “have hit every target we’ve given them” for jobs and production, McCabe says.

Ben Jacklet