Environment Forum

China’s Trina Solar launches $800 million expansion, as SpectraWatt sputters

IMG_1324Days after solar cell maker SpectraWatt notified New York authorities that it will shut down its seven-month-old factory and lay off 117 employees, China’s Trina Solar announced Monday that it will invest $800 million in new manufacturing plants over the next three years.

The move by Trina underscores just how difficult it has become for solar startups in the United States to compete against the massive investment being poured into Chinese photovoltaic module makers.

That’s particularly the case for startups making conventional silicon photovoltaic cells such as SpectraWatt, which was spun out of Intel in 2008 with an initial $50 million investment lead by the chip giant’s venture capital arm, Goldman Sachs and other investors.

In 2010, Chinese firms accounted for 72 percent of new photovoltaic manufacturing capacity worldwide, according to a survey by iSuppli, a California research firm. Seven of the top 10 module manufacturers are based in China.

As Chinese solar companies like Suntech Power Holdings and Yingli Green Energy have ramped up manufacturing — supported by generous subsidies from China’s government — they’ve cut prices and grabbed big shares of the U.S. and European markets.

Intel-backed SpectraWatt to close New York solar factory

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.