A foothold in solar, but what now?

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

Is the sun setting on Clark County solar opportunities? Or does the sector offer bright opportunities for job creation here?

Already, the greater Portland-Vancouver metro area has a foothold in solar, thanks to SolarWorld in Hillsboro, Ore., which claims to be America’s largest, most advanced photovoltaic production site. Japanese corporation Sharp this year chose to base its U.S. solar operations in Camas. Vancouver silicon manufacturer SEH America has hinted that it might venture into the field.

And Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., parent of Camas-based WaferTech, is in the early stages of exploring solar business opportunities. There’s no talk of TSMC bringing solar jobs here, but there’s room for expansion on WaferTech’s campus.

A recent move by U.S. companies to challenge China’s solar-sector trade policies could lead to still more opportunities to bring manufacturing to Clark County. According to a recent New York Times analysis, that could spur China to shift manufacturing to the U.S. to avoid tariffs and other penalties. Already, one Eugene, Ore., solar company has reported getting inquiries from Chinese manufacturers.

Yet officials at the Columbia River Economic Development Council are tepid when asked if they’re trying to recruit solar manufacturers to Clark County.

“It’s not that we would say no to somebody who wanted to locate here,” said Jeanie Ashe, director of business recruitment for the nonprofit development group. “Renewable energy is always of interest to the CREDC,” Ashe said. “Solar, we’re taking a cautious view of, primarily because the market is not stable.”

Blame that instability on topsy turvy U.S. policies, at a time when China’s government is investing billions to develop its own solar sector.

American tax credits have repeatedly expired and then been renewed, creating a boom-and-bust cycle for renewable energy companies. One tax credit and a solar grant program both expire at the end of this year, and another credit vanishes in 2016. American companies are bracing for likely layoffs.

But tax credit talk could become passé. Sharp Solar in Camas is working on technology that could make solar more affordable. WaferTech’s parent company likewise sees innovation as key to its solar goals.

CREDC leaders are right in their assessment of the sector, for the moment. Despite Clark County’s many competitive advantages, our national policy is too mixed up for most manufacturers to feel safe making big investments.

Breakthroughs could change the economics in a hurry, however. Flights and ships that connect us to China and Japan, along with river and rail networks that take goods from Clark County to the U.S., make this county an attractive hub. Through the semiconductor industry, we have ties to companies that want to invest in solar. And we’ve got plenty of workers ready to get the job done.

The dysfunction that dominates Washington, D.C., is clouding short-term prospects for solar-sector growth. If innovation helps blow those clouds away, Clark County should be ready and waiting to catch some rays.

Courtney Sherwood The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.