Environment Forum

Intel-backed SpectraWatt to close New York solar factory

By Todd Woody
December 24, 2010

spectrawatt cellAs 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.

Comments
4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Wow. Once again China outperforms the US competition. Also investigate battery technology and production. The only way the US can compete is if the playing field is leveled. That means greater investment by the Government and a long-term, National program to support industry in a cooperative approach rather than a competitive one. China is mastering the centrally controlled free market. This is something the US did well in the 1950′s after WWII. Many cooperative programs between the National Laboratories and industry produced jobs and consumer products that benefited workers, consumers, and society. Hopefully we’ll relearn this from China’s success.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive
 

One option for SpectraWatt is to shift to India and compete with China. If they need to interact contact me psdeodhar@aplab.com More on me at http://www.psdeodhar.net

Posted by prabhud | Report as abusive
 

The USA needs to get back in the game (rather than ‘the’, let’s say ‘a’ game). Read about the Minerva Medica project in the book ‘Getting Back To The American Dream’.

Better read it before the Chinese win the health care game too. Too bad Obamacare was about ‘wealth transfer’ rather than fixing medical problems.

Posted by magnets | Report as abusive
 

The funny thing is the lesson being drawn from this. Folks are saying we should level the playing field with PRC’s terrible centralized planning investment decisions by making equal/greater terrible centralized planning investment decisions. If the Chinese want to invest in a non-commercially viable business, I would say we’d be better off taking advantage of their subsidizing the business and devote our resources elsewhere. Devoting our resources elsewhere is better done by the private sector, which rotates capital far more quickly than the government. Less government will equal greater jobs.

Posted by fnl | Report as abusive
 

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