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Sun sets on solar manufacturer

Hope dims for Gresham plant as company lets state loan expire
by: File photo Officials were all smiles last year when Damoder Reddy, CEO of Solexant, a solar cell manufacturing company, spoke Tat Gresham City Hall, announcing the company's decision to open a plant in Gresham. With Reddy were Gresham city councilors David Widmark and Josh Fuhrer, Mayor Shane Bemis and then- Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Nearly one year to the date that city and state officials announced a solar manufacturing company would build a facility in Gresham, a state loan for the project has been deemed null and void.

Solexant Corp., based in San Jose, Calif., planned to build Oregon's first thin-film solar cell manufacturing facility in Gresham, a plant it hoped would be operational later this year.

The 100,000-square-foot facility was to employ 100 people, grow to 200 employees in a few years, and, if all went well, to as many as 1,000 workers.

At the time of last summer's announcement that Solexant chose Gresham for the location of its new plant, the facility would have been the largest nanotechnology manufacturing plant in the world.

Solexant was pre-approved for $18.5 million in Business Energy Tax Credits, and was to receive a $25 million loan from the Oregon Department of Energy. The loan was the largest bestowed in the 30-year history of the state's energy loan program.

However, Solexant was not 'ready to move forward' by paying half of its $250,000 loan fee as of July 5, according to a letter from the state to Solexant Chief Financial Officer James McNicholas. The remaining $125,000 was to be paid later.

In the letter, the state said it 'does not consider the Loan Agreement actionable and will consider the account null and void on July 14, 2011, unless Solexant is able to provide material information that would allow the state to reconsider.'

Solexant did not provide any such material information, said Cliff Voliva, Oregon Department of Energy spokesman.

But Gresham business and economic development officials remain hopeful Solexant will build in Gresham. That's because Solexant told the state that it wouldn't be ready to pay the loan fee until late 2012 or 2013.

Voliva confirmed that Solexant is interested in reapplying for the loan next year or the year after.

'It still could happen,' he said.

Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis, who announced Solexant's pending move to Gresham last summer, was out of town on a personal matter and unavailable for comment, said Laura Shepard, city spokeswoman.

Solexant's CFO did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.

Janet Young, Gresham's economic development director, said she's 'very hopeful' Solexant reapplies for the state loan and builds in Gresham.

Reapplying wouldn't be like starting from the scratch, but more like revising a business plan, Young said, because reapplying wouldn't be as much work as the first time around.

'I'm disappointed it didn't move forward quickly, but it would be more of a disappointment to have it built quickly and have it not work,' she said.

Young said Solexant is 'doing some additional work on the technological end of the product they're producing,' adding that the thin-film solar modules are designed to produce as much electricity as possible for maximum efficiency. 'If they get that wrong, they spend a lot of money on equipment that's not exactly right,' Young said.

Alison Hart, CEO of the Gresham Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, echoed that.

'It's not their lack of interest in our area but to make sure their infrastructure is where it needs to be,' Hart said.

Gresham, which has been trying to position itself as a leader in the green technology and solar energy fields, will keep working with state and regional officials to recruit such companies, as well as retain current ones, Young said.

The plant would have been the fourth solar-related facility to build in East County.

Oregon Crystal Technologies is getting ready to test its equipment in its 10,000-square-foot plant for solar energy components on Sandy Boulevard. The company is a subsidiary of Shanghai-based China Crystal Technologies, and will employ 10, but plans to grow to 20 in a year.

Munich-based Centrosolar Group AG, which manufactures roof-mounted solar devices for homes, received federal tax credits for clean energy jobs, citing Gresham as a new site for a plant.

And Ferrotec last year opened a new plant in Fairview employing 30 people. The plant, part of a Japan-based company, produces crystal silicon and quartz crucibles to supply Oregon's growing solar manufacturing industry.