By the time this newspaper hits the streets, The Solar Energy Consortium (TSEC) will have saved face somewhat, introducing Prism Solar Technologies, Inc.’s new 93,000-square-foot holographic solar manufacturing and operations facility in Highland. But that won’t quite make up for what must have been a major PR setback when, just a couple of weeks earlier, a $150 million solar spinoff of Intel called SpecraWatt beat them to the punch by suddenly and without warning jumping ship from Oregon. Making an end run around TSEC, the company landed across the river in the Hudson Valley Research Park in East Fishkill, prompting Dutchess County Executive Bill Steinhaus to crow that his county had landed “the first solar manufacturing plant in New York State!”
The company will be setting up shop in a 100,000-square-foot leased space in old IBM Building 334, which will house its corporate headquarters, manufacturing and eventually its global R&D center, said Steinhaus, adding that: “The initial investment will total nearly $81 million in building construction, equipment and materials, research and development and other various investments.” SpectraWatt CEO Andrew Wilson told the website greentechmedia.com that the company is developing “multicrystalline” silicon cells, and that it intends to begin producing cells designed to convert 16 percent of the sunlight that hits them into electricity — a rate considered pretty darned efficient by nascent industry standards.
The company’s first factory line reportedly will have an initial manufacturing capacity of 60 megawatts. Additional lines are being planned as well, with site capacity expected to exceed 120 megawatts before the first two years are out
SpectraWatt has quite a pedigree. According to greentechmedia.com, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel, the world’s largest silicon chip maker, began developing a business plan for incubating a solar cell company back in 2004, and announced the spinoff in June of 2008. The first $50 million investment round also attracted Cogentrix Energy, which itself is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a legendary Wall Street survivor, The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.; along with PCG Clean Energy and Technology Fund (CETF) and Solon AG, a German solar panel maker and power plant developer based in Berlin. In a statement announcing its investment, Solon referred to SpectraWatt as a “strategic partner” for “expanding the company’s supplier base.” Germany, as TSEC’s CEO Vincent Cozzolino is fond of saying, is miles ahead of the U.S. at this point in terms of solar research, development, manufacturing and marketing.
Intel has been accused of trying to buy its way into a market pioneered by others. SpectraWatt will be competing against a small constellation of solar cell makers large and small, which have had a significant head start. According to greentechmedia.com, “key competitors include pure solar-cell makers such as Q-Cells, as well as solar panel makers who produce their own cells, such as Suntech Power Holdings in China.”
In the U.S. in the Age of Obama and Economic Stimulus, competition to attract a bona fide player in the supposedly red-hot “green” technology sector is fierce among state and regional entities hoping to retool aging factory complexes into the next Silicon Valley. New York State has quietly been encouraging the feeding frenzy, dangling multimillion-dollar Empire State Development (ESD) and New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) tax incentives along which localities can hang additional economic incentives. With the state in this case providing $3 million through ESD and $1.5 million from NYSERDA, Dutchess County kicked in a resource assistance package that included training grants from the Dutchess County Industrial Development Agency and the Dutchess County Workforce Investment Board. Additionally, said Steinhaus, “Dutchess Community College has agreed to work with SpectraWatt to tailor technical and professional development courses for employees based on the needs of the company. The deal-sealer, though, must surely have been the 200 metric tons of solar-grade silicon ESD was able to throw in as the result of an earlier swap with the state’s new Niagara Falls-based silicon manufacturer, Globe Specialty Metals. In exchange for providing Globe with 40 megawatts of low cost hydropower, the state was given 1,000 metric tons of the stuff to do with as it wished. Twenty percent of its stash was enough to entice SpectraWatt.
Sounds a lot like something TSEC might have come up with, had they been given the chance.
SpectraWatt, however, may not be all it’s cracked up to be, according to The Oregonian newspaper, which reported the sour-grapes perspective from the losing state, starting with revealing that the reason for the move to New York was that the cash-strapped company couldn’t find financing to build a plant. Desari Strader, executive director of the Oregon Solar Energies Industry Association, was paraphrased in an Oregonian article as saying that “impatient venture-capitalist managers at SpectraWatt have unrealistic expectations of Oregon officials, who must ensure the company is financially sound before confirming tax breaks.”
Are they saying that New York officials have no such standards?
New York’s gain is Oregon’s loss. The planned 65,000-square-foot Hillsboro, Oregon plant, announced in June 2008, was to have employed 135 workers. A month later, Wilson announced plans to build an even bigger plant that would boost SpectraWatt’s work force to 1,000 within eight years, putting the company on track toward supplying up to 5 percent of the world’s solar cells. The hammer began to fall on December 17, when, according to The Oregonian, Hillsboro officials were 85 percent done with reviewing the company’s building-permit applications. Here’s hoping SpectraWatt treats us a little better than that.