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Jobs Watch: Solar hiring ramps up

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley told a roomful of business leaders at a recent forum that he would protect their interests over those of an "out of state energy company" seven days a week. His point is well taken, given the well-documented abuses of tax credits by some of these outsiders. But some of the best jobs news coming out of Oregon can be attributed to energy companies based far out of state.

I'm talking about SolarWorld, the booming German photovoltaic company that announced today it will ramp up hiring yet again at its Hillsboro factory, creating 350 new jobs by September 30 for a total of 1,000. That's 1,000 full time jobs with benefits in an industry with a huge upside, and they would not have existed were it not for the much-maligned Business Energy Tax Credit. Giving a $20 million tax break to a foreign company may seem like a foolish giveaway, until you weigh it against a $650 million investment from one of the top performing businesses in Germany, creating jobs in Oregon when they are needed most. Other solar companies may be shifting production overseas to cut costs, but SolarWorld is doing the opposite, investing in Oregon with the goal of winning over customers in the still-nascent U.S. market for solar power.

Since selecting Oregon for the site of the largest solar manufacturing facility in the U.S., SolarWorld has powered through the recession without delay, keeping its job promises and steadily expanding its presence. This has brought design and construction jobs as well as the 1,000 long-term manufacturing jobs in Hillsboro.

Several years ago I asked SolarWorld VP Bob Beisner why the company chose Oregon over California, Washington and China. In addition to being "dissuaded by intellectual property rights concerns in China," he told me, SolarWorld was attracted by the Silicon Forest's "base of people, vendors and suppliers who already understand silicon" and by a conviction that the U.S. "will become one of the biggest marketplaces for solar in the world over the next five or 10 years." Both of those bets have been paying off nicely. Given the sluggish state of the job market, SolarWorld has no shortage of qualified applicants to choose from. And while the U.S. market for solar remains hampered by its higher costs, the potential upside is enormous should companies such as SolarWorld find ways to bring those costs down. A newly published report from the European Photovoltaic Industry Association predicts the U.S. will overtake Germany to become the top solar power market in the world by 2014.

The state already has cut back on the BETC program following Harry Esteve's expose in the Oregonian documenting systemic abuses, but SolarWorld's continuing success should serve as a reminder that tax breaks sometimes work, bringing private sector returns that far outweigh the public investment.

Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business Magazine.

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