"Oregon's solar supply chain fills in"
SiC Processing doubled the production at its Swan Island plant last year. Over the last six years, the state’s success in landing companies including SolarWorld, Sanyo Solar, Solaicx and others has turned Oregon into the nation’s leader in the manufacturing of solar energy-generating products.
Chris Heiler, CEO of SiC Processing, is watching his company grow alongside Oregon's solar manufacturing cluster.
By Erik Siemers
Sustainable Business Oregon
SiC Processing doubled the production at its Swan Island plant last year, where each month it now produces more than 800 tons of the chemical slurry used to slice silicon wafers.
Two years from now, it plans to begin production at a second facility, this time in Hillsboro, that after nearly $15 million in investment would bring its monthly capacity to 200 tons.
And it’s largely due to the growth of SolarWorld’s Hillsboro facility, the nation’s largest solar panel manufacturing operation, and the rest of the robust U.S. solar power industry.
“They were growing, and so were we,” said Chris Heiler, CEO of SIC Processing USA, the Portland-based division of Germany’s SiC Processing AG.
Over the last six years, the state’s success in landing companies including SolarWorld, Sanyo Solar, Solaicx and others has turned Oregon into the nation’s leader in the manufacturing of solar energy-generating products.
That success promised to bring with it the ancillary benefit of drawing those companies’ suppliers to the state.
Oregon economic development leaders say that’s happening now, with more stories like SiC bound to emerge as U.S. demand for solar power surges.
“We’re growing steadily, bit by bit,” said Bruce Laird, a clean energy recruitment officer with the Oregon Business Development Department.
Oregon can already hang its hat on a few successes in building out the solar manufacturing supply chain.
Japan-based Ferrotec, for example, last year announced plans to open a plant in Fairview, where it will make crucibles used by companies, including Sanyo Solar of Oregon LLC in Salem, that grow silicon ingots that are sliced into wafers for solar energy modules.
As Oregon continues to build out its solar manufacturing cluster, the evolution of a supply chain will continue to take greater focus.
Convincing companies to expand and “bring their supply chain, their suppliers to Oregon, is really the lowest hanging fruit and the best opportunity,” said Charlie Allcock, economic development director for Portland General Electric Co.
It’s also critical to the state’s solar economic development strategy, which centers on helping the manufacturers already located in Oregon to expand.
On the southeast edge of Salem sits a bright green sign that reads “Salem Renewable Energy & Technology Center.”
The center today consists of one tenant — the $84 million Sanyo Solar wafer-making plant — and a big patch of greenfield waiting to be occupied.
Ron Craig has certainly made some attempts to fill it.
“We have discussions with virtually all of our major suppliers about the opportunity to locate here with us,” said Craig, vice president of administration at Sanyo.
It makes business sense for both Sanyo Solar and its suppliers to locate nearby, he said. For one, the company is constantly making product improvements done in concert with suppliers.
Locating nearby benefits both innovation and operations.
It also provides an economic boost to the state.
SolarWorld alone last year spent $50.2 million on supplies and services in Oregon.
Laird said the supplier prospects are starting to line up.
“Even this week (the first week of May) we had a firm from out of town in visiting and calling, and it really is a numbers game. We talk to people and for every 20 people something happens,” Laird said. “I feel very optimistic about the direction.”
SiC came to Portland in 2005. Heiler called it a “bit of a garage” operation with used equipment purchased cheaply.
In making solar generating silicon wafers, manufacturers like Sanyo and SolarWorld grow silicon ingots that are sliced into wafers with the help of a chemical slurry compound.
SiC takes the used slurry, cleans it, and prepares it for reuse to the manufacturer’s specification, reducing the amount of waste from the wafering process. Heiler said the company currently recovers 85 percent of the slurry compound for reuse.
Though it started small in the United States, it began to quickly amass customers as the industry built out domestically. Its contracts include SolarWorld and Sanyo in Oregon, as well as CaliSolar in California, Sumco USA Corp. in New Mexico, and had included BP before the company decided to shift production from Frederick, Md., overseas.
It was handling 400 tons of slurry a month two years ago before an upgrade last year more than doubled its capacity to 840 tons and increased its work force from 22 employees to about 35.
Today, the U.S. market for slurry is around 1,900 tons per month. Figuring that number will rise along with U.S. demand, SiC is moving forward with plans for a Hillsboro plant that could produce around 2,000 tons of slurry per month.
The new plant — an investment in the range of $10 million to $15 million — can’t come soon enough, Heiler said. But realistically it will be commissioned sometime in 2013.
“This is anticipating the growth of our customers,” Heiler said. “This is highly dependent on what our customers do. Capital investment of that size requires close coordination with customers so you don’t have a huge facility and not enough orders to fill it.”
Oregon’s economic development leaders are hoping that won’t be a problem.