April 08, 2011

Officials See Region As A Major Hub For Solar Energy Industry, Job Growth

By: by Drew Kerr, Post Star


SARATOGA SPRINGS - Already seen as a magnet for the semiconductor industry, the Capital Region is getting ready for its second act.

Two announcements this week have area economic development officials saying the area is primed to become a new hub for solar energy, an industry long concentrated overseas but growing larger in the United States every year.

On Tuesday, officials with the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering announced that the school had been awarded a nearly $58 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help create the U.S. Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium.

The consortium will be focused on developing new ways to manufacture solar technologies and bring them into the rapidly growing market.

The announcement was followed Thursday by news that the General Electric Co. plans to build a manufacturing facility in the United States that would employ 400 people and be capable of producing enough solar panels to power 80,000 homes a year.

GE did not announce a location for the facility except to say that incentives, talent and proximity to technology will be a part of their decision-making process.

But local development officials say it stands to reason that the Capital Region will be in the running for the facility, given the research and development expected to emanate from the consortium and the overlaps between solar and semiconductors supply chain needs.

The fact that GE already has such a strong presence in the area likely doesn't hurt the region's chances either, officials said.

"I would like to think because of where they're (GE) located, that the Capital Region would be in the mix," said Dennis Brobston, the executive director at the Saratoga Economic Development Corp.

The region's infrastructure, abundance of developable sites, educational assets and workforce development infrastructure, all of which have been ramped up in anticipation of GlobalFoundries' arrival, will also serve as strong lures for the area.

"As you continue to build the workforce of the future, this becomes a very critical component of the region's economic ecosystem," said F. Michael Tucker, the president at the Center for Economic Growth. "This is what clustering is all about."

Still, economic development officials said that GE's news came as a surprise, and that more work should be done to attract the industry to the region. More emphasis on education and infrastructure, along with government incentives, are among the areas of emphasis. GlobalFoundries received $1.2 billion in tax breaks and cash grants from the state in deciding to locate in New York.

Asked if more government money could be needed to make the area viable to photovoltaic manufacturers, economic development officials said the answer was an unequivocal yes.

"There's no other way to work in the world today," Brobston said. "There are other states and other countries that want this business."

It remains unclear how much, if at all, the government may be willing to contribute, however.

GE is not the only company that could potentially build solar panels in New York in the future either.

Economic development officials have been actively targeting the photovoltaic sector as a way to cushion the area from the peaks and valleys of the semiconductor industry and have received interest from at least two other companies that could build manufacturing sites in the area.

The companies, which have indicated their desire to begin production between 2013 and 2015, could together yield up to 1,750 jobs and an investment of $1.5 billion, officials said.

"This is something that could help up pick the pieces if things ever got a little slower with semiconductors," Brobston said.

The Luther Forest Technology Campus, which has 1,400 acres and another 10 sites to be developed in Malta and Stillwater, is a potential site for a photovoltaic manufacturing plant.

Local companies that already deal in the solar power field say they stand to benefit if the region becomes a solar hub, if only because it would lift the industry as a whole.

Terry Moag, the president of The Radiant Store at Malta's Saratoga Technology and Energy Park, said reducing costs, increasing efficiency and making solar power more commercially available are the keys to the industry's growth.

The solar industry has, to date, been limited by high production costs and the fact that less than 20 percent of solar energy harnessed by panels is converted into usable power.

Improving the technology could reduce the time needed to pay off the upfront costs and make the technology less reliant on government incentive programs, which ebb and flow from year to year.

"As the price of panels comes down, the product will become more available," said Moag, whose company installs solar thermal systems that use panels to supply radiant heat and to warm water. "This could bode very well for the market."

Even with its challenges, the solar industry has grown exponentially in recent years, growing 67 percent last year while supporting some 93,000 jobs in the United States, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

If the growth trend continues, officials say the United States could become the largest solar market in the world by 2013. Germany and China now dominate the solar market.

"Everyone's talking about getting solar energy more marketable," Brobston said. "What better place to do that than the world's largest marketplace."