Global environmental challenges
Intel-backed SpectraWatt to close New York solar factory
As competition with low-cost Chinese photovoltaic module makers intensifies, SpectraWatt, a solar startup spun out of Intel, has notified New York officials that it will shut down its factory in March and lay off 117 workers, according to a filing with the state’s Department of Labor.
The closure of the East Fishkill, N.Y., plant comes seven months after it opened and less than three years after SpectraWatt launched with a $50 million investment lead by Intel Capital, the chip giant’s investing arm. Other investors included Goldman Sachs, PCG Clean Energy and Technology Fund and German solar company Solon. Most of those investors also backed a $41.4 million round of funding for SpectraWatt announced in March.
SpectraWatt did not respond to a request for comment about the company’s plans or the shuttering of the solar cell factory, which was first reported by the Times Herald Record of Middletown, N.Y.
But in its filing with the New York labor department, SpectraWatt listed the reason for the factory’s closure as “economic.”
When SpectraWatt started in June 2008, its chief executive, Andrew Wilson, told me that the startup would be able to break into an increasingly crowded market through technological innovation.
“The solar industry today looks like the microelectronics industry in the late ‘70s – there’s very few standards and no one is manufacturing at scale,” Wilson, an Intel veteran, said at the time. “It’s all about manufacturing processes and material sciences that will lead to fundamental breakthroughs. The product is vastly simpler than a microprocessor but the fundamental nature of a solar cell isn’t all that different. When you think of what it takes to manufacture globally and manage supply chains, that’s Intel’s core competence.”
Yet within a year, Chinese photovoltaic cell makers would ramp up production on a scale that dwarfed SpectraWatt’s 60-megawatt capacity, upending the global solar business by cutting prices and capturing a 40 percent share of the California market.
Even a startup as well-capitalized as Silicon Valley’s Solyndra, which raised more than $1 billion and received a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant, was forced to scale back its ambitions in November when it closed an older factory and delayed expansion plans.
It was unclear what technological advantages would allow SpectraWatt to compete in what had become a commodity market as its “CrystalBlue” solar cells offered an efficiency rate comparable to low-cost Chinese manufacturers and below that of tech leaders such as SunPower.
The company initially began operations in Hillsboro, Ore., but in 2009 moved its headquarters to Hopewell Junction, N.Y., when state and local officials offered incentives to open the solar cell plant in a former IBM facility.