SolarWorld Opens Huge Factory in Oregon, Wants to Lead the World in Photovoltaics

Today marks the opening of what will be North America’s largest solar-cell manufacturing plant. And it’s right here in the Northwest. SolarWorld, based in Bonn, Germany, is launching a new solar facility in Hillsboro, OR. On the docket this morning is a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a tour of the sprawling, 480,000 square-foot facility. Expected to be in attendance are some prominent Oregon officials, including Governor Ted Kulongoski, Congressman David Wu, and Senator Ron Wyden.

It’s a big deal for the local economy, and for solar energy. By 2011, SolarWorld’s Hillsboro plant is expected to employ 1,000 people and produce enough solar-cell material to generate 500 Megawatts of electricity per year—enough to power roughly 80,000 U.S. homes, in theory. SolarWorld acquired the Hillsboro facility from Japan’s Komatsu Group in March 2007 for $40 million. Komatsu had planned to use the site to manufacture silicon wafers, but it didn’t pan out, because of weak demand for chips. Now SolarWorld, which was founded in 1977 and had its IPO in Germany in 1999, says it is investing more than $400 million in the Oregon facility.

Solar power is a big piece of the renewable energy and cleantech puzzle. Annual revenues in the solar industry are predicted to triple in the next three years, from $13 billion to $40 billion, according to the investment banking firm Piper Jaffray. Yet the problem has always been that solar cells are very expensive to produce. If they have large enough scale and efficiency, manufacturing facilities like SolarWorld’s could play an important role in making solar energy more mainstream. “SolarWorld…is helping to bring real alternatives to market through a strategy focused on high-volume manufacturing. The new Hillsboro facility is our most shining example of this strategy in practice,” said SolarWorld CEO Frank Asbeck in a statement.

Why Oregon? SolarWorld is certainly not alone in setting up manufacturing facilities there. Companies like SpectraWatt (spun out of Intel), Solaicx, Peak Sun Silicon, XSunX, PVPowered, Mr. Sun Solar Enterprises, and Wacker, to name just a few, have all set up solar-cell factories in Oregon. The main reasons are probably the state’s business energy tax credit, and its large talent pool of tech workers, especially in the semiconductor industry. Also, there is plenty of cheap hydropower, and being close to California, the nation’s largest solar market, can’t hurt either.

“The Pacific Northwest possesses a hotbed of talent in both silicon manufacturing and clean-technologies. Oregon is the obvious choice for where to undertake this new level of solar cell manufacturing, said Boris Klebensberger, SolarWorld’s chief operating officer, in a statement. Klebensberger is coming off a panel appearance (entitled “The great crystalline silicon debate”) earlier this week at the Solar Power International conference in San Diego, CA.

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