By Dan Cook
PORTLAND (Reuters) - U.S. solar start-up SoloPower opened the doors of its first factory on Thursday, a key milestone toward allowing the company to collect on a $197 million government loan guarantee.
The 225,000-square-foot facility in Portland, Oregon will one day accommodate two of the company's planned four production lines. Only the first line is producing panels so far. The remaining three lines will be built with the help of its loan guarantee, SoloPower said.
"The federal money from the DOE will come later, upon expansion of our plant," said Chief Technology Officer Mustafa Pinarbasi said in an interview. "So the DOE invests no money until they can see that we are running efficiently."
SoloPower has drawn comparisons to failed solar startup Solyndra, which filed for bankruptcy last year after receiving a $535 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to manufacture its panels in California. That company's collapse ignited a firestorm in Washington as Republicans branded the Obama administration's green incentives a waste of public money.
But despite being both a domestic solar panel manufacturer and a part of the same controversial government program as the one that backed its defunct rival, SoloPower's chief executive on Thursday said his company is no Solyndra.
"They could never get their costs down to where we are starting," CEO Tim Harris said in an interview at the Portland plant's grand opening. "We are already very low cost with just one line up and running, and will be even cheaper once all four lines are operating."
SoloPower's $60 million plant will produce lightweight, flexible modules for rooftops that can't support the weight of traditional panels.
"We've got so much demand for this product we have all the orders we could possibly fill," Harris said. "SoloPower is an American manufacturing success story."
SoloPower also said it is different from Solyndra because it has not yet collected any federal money.
The company has been supported by $219 million in private funding from investors including Hudson Clean Energy Partners, Convexa Capital Ventures, Crosslink Capital and Firsthand Capital Management. It also received loans, tax credits and other incentives from the state of Oregon and the city of Portland.
But Solyndra comparisons aside, SoloPower is entering the market at a dismal time for panel manufacturers.
Though global demand for photovoltaic solar installations is expected to grow about 8 percent this year, rapid expansion of panel manufacturing in Asia in recent years - combined with a pullback in government incentives in key European markets - has left a glut of solar panels in the market, sending prices down 30 percent this year alone.
Companies that make those panels are now struggling to survive. Even Chinese manufacturers, whose costs are the lowest in the world, are cutting jobs in a bid to preserve profits.
SoloPower expects to have all four manufacturing lines operating by 2015, Harris said. The plant will one day employ 450 people, up from 60 currently.
"There are still 60,000 people who are unemployed in Portland. SoloPower has already hired 60 people with family-wage jobs," Portland Mayor Sam Adams said at the plant's ribbon-cutting event. "It has taken government loans to get solar power started in the country, and I think you'd agree that's worth the investment."
(Reporting by Dan Cook in Portland; Writing by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)