SoloPower plant closing, mere months after opening

solopower photo
© Pete Danko

solopower photo© Pete Danko

SoloPower, we hardly new ye.

Mere months after the maker of cutting-edge solar panels opened a manufacturing plant here in Portland, Ore., backed at all levels of government, it is suspending operations. The Oregonian newspaper broke the news on Monday after catching wind of a plant-closing notice that SoloPower had delivered to the state workforce development agency.

This appears to be one of those suspensions that is likely not to end.

"SoloPower's decision to reduce its operations in the Portland facility is expected to be permanent," the Oregonian said, quoting from the notice.

SoloPower won state and local loans and tax credits valued around $35 million with the promise of annually spooling out, eventually, 400 megawatts of lightweight and flexible PV panels perfect for commercial and industrial rooftops unable to handle standard hard panels and racks. That production level was going to translate to 450 employees, according to plans.

Never happened. Never came close to happening. The Portland plant opened with 60 employees but in the closing notice SoloPower said its workforce was down to a mere 29 souls. Earlier this month the company laid off 61 employees at its San Jose headquarters.

SoloPower received a $197 million loan guarantee through the same U.S. Department of Energy program that backed doomed Solyndra, but it appears as though none of that money was ever used. The DOE was requiring the company to have its first high-volume manufacturing line up and running before releasing funds. SoloPower said in September that it expected that to happen sometime “in the next two quarters,” but instead of gearing up after the ribbon-cutting, the company’s Portland operation withered away.

What went wrong for SoloPower? It had an interesting product, for sure, but its panels were much less efficient than standard silicon and even other thin-film panels. And it was more expensive than alternatives – with the gap growing as PV prices continued to fall in response to market oversupply. In an interview with EarthTechling last summer, Lux Research analyst Fatima Toor expressed grave doubts about SoloPower’s ability to compete.

So add SoloPower to the pile of solar carnage – but remember, even as the manufacturing sector struggles, solar is getting cheaper, easier and more efficient – and solar is growing.

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