Military boosts solar power business

Military boosts solar power business

By Corey Paul

A military authorization law signed by President Obama on Friday could boost Oregon's solar industry. That's because a provision buried deep within the document requires the Department of Defense to buy American solar panels.

While it's too early to say just how much business and jobs this will create in the state, the solar industry welcomes whatever support it gets from the government.

Solar is the most expensive of major energy sources, but with state support it has ascended rapidly in Oregon over the past decade. The state lured companies with tax credits and subsidies, such as SolarWorld, which in 2008 opened the nation's largest solar plant, in Hillsboro. The state continues to support solar manufacturers with millions of taxpayer dollars, standing to benefit from employment, new income taxes and capital investment. 

"We have been one of the few bright spots in a very dark sky with regard to our economy," said Glenn Montgomery, executive director of the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association. "That success has been dependent on public support to continue to spur that growth."

Early this month, SoloPower Inc., a California manufacturer, said it had raised more than $51 million for a plant in Wilsonville and would seek a $20 million loan from the state.

According to a New York Times report, the military spending provision will likely cause tension by banning purchases from the Chinese, who are widely thought to artificially lower prices with subsidized manufacturing costs and manipulated currency. China dominates solar panel production, accounting for at least half the world's production last year, while the United States claims just $1.6 billion of the $29 billion market.

The American military is the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world, but it's increasing its consumption of renewable energy products, as large fuel shipments are expensive and potentially dangerous.

SolarWorld already works with the government, recently supplying about 2.5 megawatts to a contractor for installation at Pearl Harbor, said Solar World spokesman Ben Santarris. In December, SolarWorld announced the hiring of its 1000th employee.

"We are investing heavily in the US market," Santarris said. "So obviously to have the government and the military valuing domestic production of solar can only be good for companies like ours."

Corey Paul is an associate writer for Oregon Business.