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"Solar manufacturing advantage: Oregon"

Sanyo Solar opened its $84 million Salem wafer-making plant two years ago, employs just over 200, pays at 150 percent above the average Marion County wage, and has been a strong advocate for solar in Oregon.

"Solar manufacturing advantage: Oregon"

Sanyo Solar VP Ron Craig: "We’ve exceeded every commitment to the state."

By Erik Siemers
Sustainable Business Oregon

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Sanyo Solar opened its $84 million Salem wafer-making plant two years ago with lots of promise.

To date it’s met expectations on about every metric.

It employs just over 200, pays at 150 percent above the average Marion County wage, and has been a strong advocate for solar in Oregon.

“We’ve exceeded every commitment to the state,” said Ron Craig, vice president of administration for Sanyo Solar of Oregon LLC.

Now, Oregon leaders believe its time they return the favor.

Sanyo joins SolarWorld, Solaicx, PV Powered and a host of others among a cache of companies that in the past five years have turned Oregon into one of the nation’s biggest manufacturers of solar-energy-generating products.

The state in the past year has added to its collection, securing commitments from thin-film solar manufacturers Solexant and SoloPower.

But as the state continues to grow the cluster, its efforts will focus more on helping the companies already here expand than on recruiting new players to the market.

“The question we’re chasing down right now, is what’s up next year and the following,” said Bruce Laird who, as a clean technology recruitment officer at the Oregon Business Development Department has played a key role in building out the state’s solar manufacturing cluster. “We’re really paying attention to helping companies expand and be successful in capturing market share.”

The impetus for that strategy isn’t so much customer service for the state as it is an assessment of the solar industry’s trajectory.

The U.S. solar market grew 67 percent last year, from $3.6 billion to $6 billion, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

That figure is only going to grow as the cost of solar inches closer to parity with more traditional electricity resources and nations shift away from controversial energy sources like nuclear power.

“Once that starts happening and solar becomes a low-cost energy source, you’re going to see increases in demand,” Laird said.

And as demand increases, companies like Sanyo may look to expand their Oregon operations.

Though the company hasn’t outlined any specific plans for its Salem plant, where it makes silicon wafers used in the company’s solar panels, the potential for expansion is pronounced.

Sanyo North America Corp. spokesman Aaron Fowles said the Japanese company produces 600 megawatts worth of panels each year. Yet its silicon wafer plants produce just 100 megawatts — 70 in Salem, 30 in California — with the remaining 500 MW coming from third-parties.

As those contracts expire, it’s likely the company will look to expand its in-house production.

The impetus is on Oregon to make sure those expansions happen here.

“The big ones, SolarWorld, Sanyo and MEMC (owner of Solaicx), they’re going to be looking at their markets in the next five years and making decisions on how they operate in North America, what their global outreach is going to look like,” said Charlie Allcock, economic development director for Portland General Electric Co. “Keeping a real close eye and working with them will be an essential part of the Oregon strategy.”

That’s not to say the state is letting potential new recruits slip by.

Laird said Oregon continues to work with emerging companies whose products serve niche markets.

Recently recruited SoloPower Inc., a San Jose thin-film solar technology startup, is the blueprint for that strategy.

Unlike an inflexible, rectangular solar panel, SoloPower’s product is made of a flexible membrane that can be rolled out upon a rooftop like carpet.

“It is used almost as roofing material. It ends up with a very low cost of installation,” Laird said. “A lot of the growth you’re going to see is people filling out these different niches and different applications.”

Allcock said there are several companies in the Bay Area alone — where Laird was visiting the first week of May — that fit that profile: startups that spent the past five to eight years in labs developing prototypes that are now ready to go into mass production.

“That’s the next piece,” he said.

Further down the road, state officials see an opportunity with companies finding innovative ways to integrate solar into buildings.

That could include integrating solar generation into building siding or companies developing battery technology for storing solar energy.

“One of the things that made this state attractive to the solar industry was our ties to the semiconductor industry,” said Janet Young, economic development director for the city of Gresham, which has been successful in attracting solar companies such as Solexant, another San Jose-based thin-film startup. “We have a similar advantage with green building technology. We have a lot of smart people in this region who work in green building technology.”

But in the short-term, the state’s focus is on helping the manufacturers it already has.

“We’re not trying to position for something off in the far distant future,” Laird said. “The market is growing now and companies need to expand now.”

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