A sunnier outlook during solar's dark days

Andy Giegerich is editor of Sustainable Business Oregon.

Andy Giegerich is editor of Sustainable Business Oregon.

The last two weeks haven't been kind to solar manufacturers with footprints in Oregon.

On April 17, SolarWorld AG, which employs 700 workers in Hillsboro, began addressing the possible loss of $678 million. Less than a week later, SoloPower, expected to fortify the city's renewable energy manufacturing base, told the state it will suspend operations at its still-ramping-up North Portland plant.

On Friday, Sanyo Solar of Oregon confirmed that it will lay off 52 of its 200 Salem workers when it closes a wafer slicing operation in late June. The move stems partly from declining industry margins.

You'd expect the state's solar advocacy group to paint a rosy picture about their industry's issues, and Solar Oregon does just that. However, Ron "Mac" McDowell, Solar Oregon's president, makes some pretty solid points.

Primarily, he points out that the solar industry, like every manufacturing and trade sector โ€” heck, like every business form โ€” fluctuates.

"What's happening here will be a good thing, manufacturing-wise," said McDowell. "We're all hearing about gloom and doom in the solar industry. But I was in the semiconductor industry during periods of consolidation and shakeouts.

"This is the fourth industry I've been associated with that's gone through the same shake-out. And at the end of the day, it's for the best. As a nascent industry matures, you tend to shake out."

As an example, McDowell said when he worked in China for a few years, there were 300 solar module manufacturers. Today, the country hosts about half that figure.

"If you look at the manufacturing environment, yes, these companies are struggling to survive," McDowell said. "R&D has dried up and there's no big differences between panels. They're all about 16 percent to 20 percent efficiency, they're all about the same size and weight."

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