Oregon: state of green

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Articles - June 2013
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Manufacturing: Navigating shifting markets and subsidies

Number of green jobs: 15,564

By 2011 the Portland Metro Climate Prosperity Project proudly noted that Oregon had created the largest concentration of solar manufacturers in the country. Capital totaling $1.5 billion flowed into the sector, according to Business Oregon, encouraged by government incentives to grow clean-tech industries that became a focal point of economic policy at the White House and the statehouse alike.

The results in the Portland region are real. According to the Portland Development Commission, Multnomah County alone is home to more than 12,000 clean-tech jobs created mostly over the last decade. Yet the state’s success in recruiting manufacturers like SolarWorld and Solaicx to the Portland area and Sanyo Solar to Salem has also meant exposure to young industries with volatile pricing, voracious Chinese competition, and a susceptibility to shocks as subsidies for renewable power shift with the sentiments of elected officials.

Danish wind-turbine company Vestas’ margins dropped sharply in 2011, partly on uncertainty surrounding a key federal production tax credit set to expire this year. The company rewrote its business plan and shed more than a fifth of its global workforce last year, including an undisclosed number of positions at the company’s North American headquarters in Portland.

“Ultimately, we have to figure out what the sustainable long-term U.S. market looks like in terms of megawatts and size,” says Vestas Americas president Chris Brown. “The industry is still sorting that out.”

In the solar industry, system prices fell 27% last year on the heels of similar price drops in previous years. That’s pushed up demand but also triggered a global consolidation. SoloPower recently notified the state it plans to shut down its Portland operations in June. Sanyo Solar announced 52 Oregon layoffs in April, and shortly afterward Germany-based SolarWorld, which employs about 700 in Hillsboro, began restructuring its debt to address a $624 million 2012 net loss.

Other parts of clean tech appear poised for further manufacturing growth as Oregon continues to attract startups in electric vehicles and energy storage. Last year, EnerG2 opened a 74,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Albany. It’s expected to employ upwards of 50 people producing a nanotech carbon material that allows greater energy storage for batteries and other applications. “I’m seeing Oregon as being fairly successful in attracting these types of new businesses and being a source of innovation,” says Chris Wheaton, EnerG2’s chief operating and financial officer.

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