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SolarWorld panel may be industrys future


Two-sided solar panel being built in Hillsboro

Although the worldwide solar power industry is in turmoil, SolarWorld is pushing forward with an innovative Hillsboro-made product expected to go on sale later this year.

Called Sunmodule Protect and described as a "glass-glass solar panel," it will have a 30-year performance guarantee, one of the longest in the industry. The lengthy guarantee is based in large part on improved protection from the elements achieved by using glass panels on both sides of the energy-producing solar cells.

“SolarWorld has advanced the cutting edge of solar-technology innovation for decades, and Sunmodule Protect’s launch is the latest milestone in that storied history,” said Gordon Brinser, president of SolarWorld Industries America Inc., headquartered in Hillsboro. Traditional panels have glass on one side and less-protective film on the other.

The new panel will be made at the Hillsboro manufacturing plant owned by German-based SolarWorld. It is the result of a $6 million investment in the plant first reported in January. That follows another $27 million investment announced in the plant last September. The price of the new panel has not yet been released.

SolarWorld officials are counting on the investments and advancements to help the company survive the ongoing shakeout in the solar industry. Six days after the new product was announced on March 13, the main subsidiary of China-based Suntech Power and one of the largest manufacturers of solar panels in the world, collapsed into bankruptcy. It joined dozens of other solar manufacturers who have gone out of business in recent years.

Experts blame the failures on several factors, including the overproduction of government-subsidized solar panels by Chinese manufacturers such as Suntech Power. Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed anti-dumping tariffs on the Chinese-made products after SolarWorld filed a successful international trade complaint against them. The tariffs are believed to have contributed to Suntech Power's bankruptcy.

"Suntech and the other Chinese companies do not have a sustainable business model. When the tariffs offset their illegal government subsidies and leveled the playing field, they could not compete," says Tim Brightbill, a spokesman for the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, which supported SolarWorld's trade complaint. According to the coalition, since the tariffs were imposed, U.S. imports of Chinese solar products have fallen to their lowest level in at least two years.

Despite that, SolarWorld is facing an uncertain future because of the surplus of low-priced Chinese-made products still on the market and the reduction in subsidies for alternative energy in both the U.S. and Europe. Employment at Solarworld's Hillsboro plant has stabilized at 725 workers, well down from its peak of around 1,000 more than two years ago.

The company has also postponed the release of its annual report while it attempts to restructure its debt for the second time in less than a year.

Even with all the challenges it is facing, SolarWorld is still doing better than Bosch, another German-based solar panel manufacturer. The day after Suntech Power declared bankruptcy, Bosch announced it was pulling out of the business.