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Oregon solar plant gets big federal loan backing

This is what flexible solar photovoltaic modules look like.

This is what flexible solar photovoltaic modules look like.

Oregon’s next solar manufacturing plant just got stimulated.

The U.S. Department of Energy is offering the San Diego-based SoloPower a $197 million loan guarantee to develop a new thin-film photovoltaic plant in Wilsonville. The guarantee comes from a federal stimulus program supporting clean energy development.

The $340 million plant will produce more than 400 megawatts of flexible photovoltaic panels a year at its full capacity and is expected to create between 500 and 700 permanent jobs. The company’s flexible PV panels are lighter than the traditional panels, which makes them easier to install.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the SoloPower loan guarantee is one way his agency is working “rev up the clean-energy machine” and “recapture our lead in high-tech manufacturing.”

The loan will support the company’s retrofit of a building (the actual building site hasn’t been announced yet) in Wilsonville, where the company will manufacture rolls of flexible stainless steel materials and transform them into flexible solar panels.

Project backers have a $20 million Business Energy Tax Credit from the state of Oregon, and they’re also anticipating a $20 million loan from the state’s Small Scale Energy Loan Program (SELP).

Company CEO Tim Harris said his company is contractually obligated to stay in Oregon for 10 years and doesn’t have plans to leave as the business expands. He said the flexible solar panels have unique competitive advantages, a well-oiled manufacturing process and a market ready to buy.

“This is the next generation of solar technology,” he said. “It will change the way we think about rooftops. The technology that’s been developed allows us to produce a light-weight, high-power, flexible module that’s optimized for rooftops. It allows you to envision a world of distributed power where rooftops, formerly wasted space, now produce power. And it means getting solar power off rooftops as opposed to displacing farmland.”

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said he likes the project not only for the jobs and economic development but because the product fits into his planned energy strategy for the state, which includes neighborhood-scale renewables.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) noted the U.S. is in competition right now with the Chinese for solar manufacturing jobs. He thinks SoloPower will help put the U.S. on the cutting edge.

On a conference call today, Harris said he doesn’t expect SoloPower to follow in the footsteps of Evergreen Solar Inc., the company that recently announced it will be closing its Massachussets manufacturing plant, returning $4 million in state grant money and ramping up its manufacturing in China.

Harris said SoloPower’s product has a different competitive advantage in the marketplace than Evergreen’s solar wafers, which relied on the high cost of poly to compete with Chinese products.

“When the cost of poly went down, they couldn’t compete,” he said.

Solar power SoloPower

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