Vancouver solar energy hardware firm shines

SunModo finds bright spot as larger companies fight in shadows of trade war

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The solar industry is in a tizzy. There's even talk of a trade war over the United States' recent decision to impose tariffs on Chinese-made photovoltaic panels.

SunModo, a Vancouver business that produces mounting hardware for solar systems, remains unfazed.

Founded by Camas resident Tony Liu in 2009, the nine-person company has thrived precisely because it's too tiny to get caught up in a global trade war being fought by such titans as SolarWorld Industries, a German company with U.S. headquarters in Hillsboro, Ore.

"We're too small to supply them," Liu said.

Instead, SunModo has developed relationships with other small, young companies, such as Itek Energy, a solar panel maker based in Bellingham that benefits from state incentives for consumers. And instead of railing against China, Liu tapped his connections in Fujian, Oregon's sister province, to outsource production. SunModo China manufactures the racks, which are then shipped out of SunModo's warehouse and headquarters in an industrial park near Fort Vancouver. The result, Liu said, is a suite of racking systems that are simple to install and cheaper than competitors' models.

Major players have suffered

SunModo has found a bright spot in what has become a turbulent industry. Major players with local operations have suffered.

SolarWorld reported a worldwide operating loss of $177.3 million for the first half of the year.

Japanese Sharp Corp., which is deeply in debt, is looking to restructure. Its Solar Energy Solutions group, the sales and marketing arm of the company's U.S. solar operation, employs 40 people in Camas. Tokyo media have reported Sharp might sell its solar panel factory, but Sharp told the Wall Street Journal flatly that the factory is not for sale.

And the industry is in turmoil even in China, the New York Times reported this past week. The nation's solar panel manufacturers, which control two-thirds of the world's market share, face decreasing profits, falling exports, lack of capital and protectionism, according to a business leader quoted in the newspaper.

Despite all of this, Liu said he sees as much opportunity for growth in the solar industry as he did when he started formulating a business plan while working his day job for a semiconductor company.

"Solar is a part of daily life," said Liu, a mechanical engineer. "Every year, there was at least 50 percent growth in solar."

Growth these days is even more rapid. In 2011, solar panels yielding a total of 1,855 megawatts were installed in the United States, a 109 percent growth in megawatts over 2010.

Mounting success

Liu said he knew he didn't have the capital to make solar panels, but he also knew that the panels are only one part of a solar system. Solar panels need something to hold them at the proper angle to capture the sun's energy. He began sketching racks.

He brainstormed with Cliff Schrock, founder of Solar/Wind Power Systems in Portland, who now serves as SunModo's vice president for operations. A good mounting system limits the number of holes in the roof. The fewer components, the better.

SunModo came up with the Ez Mount, and it sells 300,000 of the kits a year. In addition to a kit for pitched roofs, the company also sells Ez Mount L-Foot for metal roofs, a tilt-up system for flat roofs, and a ground mount. The company has applied for eight patents; three have been granted.

Liu points to California-based Quick Mount PV as his company's biggest competitor, but even that company was founded only six years ago.

SunModo argues that its racking systems are easier to install than those of its competitors, and that they cost about 50 percent less.

SunModo has shipped to solar installers around the country, with many orders coming from Hawaii, Texas and northeastern states.

Most of SunModo's sales are to contractors installing residential solar systems, but Liu said he and his team hope to tip the balance toward commercial work, in which each project carries a higher dollar value.

A contractor working on a residential job might buy $1,500 worth of SunModo's product, while a commercial installer might buy $15,000 worth. Both jobs, however, take similar amounts of time and energy from the company, which doesn't rely on distributors. The company provides product support, even designing systems for its customers.

SunModo chose to set up shop in Vancouver rather than south of the Columbia River in part because Liu said he was tired of commuting, but also because the company found a more business-friendly environment. Liu and his executive staff credit the Columbia River Economic Development Council with helping connect them with financing.

SunModo turned a profit in its first year in 2009, and this year expects $6 million in revenue, even with the global turbulence in the solar industry.

Falling prices for photovoltaic panels fuel consumer demand but provide slim profits for the manufacturers.

Global trade war

SolarWorld and other U.S. manufacturers accused Chinese companies, subsidized by their government, of "dumping" solar panels — or selling them at less than fair market value.

The U.S. Commerce Department in May announced anti-dumping tariffs of 31 percent and higher. Solar installers — SunModo's customers — had opposed the tariff. But SunModo sales director Karry Yoerger said even after the tariff went into effect, solar panel prices continue to fall.

"The lower we can drive the price per watt, the more the industry is going to grow," Yoerger said, adding that will prompt more energy customers will seek out solar.

Liu said he and his team hope to grab a larger share of the $1 billion market for solar racking systems.

"We've only tapped 10 percent of our customers," Liu said.