Gray Rainy Skies Don't Slow Growth of the Pacific Northwest's Solar Energy Industry

“Under the cloudy skies of the Northwest are growing some of the world’s leading solar firms.They are processing silicon for solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, making the electronic controls that regulate solar panels, and assembling large-scale solar systems. The Northwest is already a kind of Silicon Valley in the industry, says Bill Yerkes, who founded and later sold the company that has become one of the world’s largest PV producers.Siemens Solar, the company that Yerkes started, has its world center for silicon processing at Vancouver, Wash. There, Siemens grows silicon ingots from which all its PV cells are made, about 25 megawatts worth in 1999. Resembling five-foot-long silver sausages, the ingots are shipped to Siemens’ main plant in Camarillo, Calif., where they are sliced into solar cells. The Vancouver plant, which has 60 employees, drew significant investments from Siemens in 1998-99 to keep up with growing demand.Since processing silicon is an energy intensive enterprise, Siemens was drawn to the Portland area by cheap power rates. That has also contributed to the area’s emergence as one of the world’s leading computer chip makers. This suggests the area would make an ideal location for a large scale PV plant capable of drastically reducing costs through economies of production.Another piece of the solar business is putting together solar panels with other vital equipment, such as battery storage banks, to create systems capable of serving users from residential to commercial.The second largest solar systems integrator in North America is based in Lacey, Wash. Applied Power Corporation, by 1998 the fastest growing distributor of PV in the US, broadened its capabilities by acquiring several other solar firms.Solar Electric Specialties of Willits, Calif, makes components for solar systems. Ascension Technologies, based in Massachusetts and Colorado, also makes such components and performs research and development. Alternative Energy Engineering of Redway, Calif. is one of the world’s largest PV distributors. With a catalog and website, it provides Applied with new links to the consumer market.The acquisitions rounded out our range of services, says Applied spokesperson Susannah Sulsar. We’re better equipped to handle dealer and retail markets, supply custom systems. Ascension adds to our R&D side. Applied did everything, but this strengthens it.Applied itself was bought by Idaho Power in 1996, creating the first equity partnership between a PV distribution company and a utility in the United States. The utility was the first in the U.S. to offer PV systems to residents in their service territory who live off the electric grid. Much of Applied’s business is in the developing world, where its projects include solar power for villages off the grid in Latin America and North Africa.No solar panel would operate without an inverter, which converts direct current into usable alternating current. Inverters also regulate power flow from solar panels to the building, and back to the power grid when the installation is generating a power surplus.Trace Engineering of Arlington, Wash. is the world’s top inverter manufacturer, with about 90% of the U.S. market and 50% worldwide. Its sales are growing 35% annually, and it has 300 employees.PV represents only one piece of the market. Trace also supplies inverters for other clean and distributed energy sources including wind turbines, fuel cells, microturbines and microhydro.Trace was recently bought by GFI Energy Ventures, a Los Angeles based fund investing in companies that stand to benefit from the shift to distributed generation and competitive power markets.With fast-growing companies such as Trace, Applied and Siemens operating in the Northwest, the region’s future as a solar PV center looks sunny.Note: This is a guest-written article for the Index. Patrick Mazza is staff writer-researcher for Climate Solutions. This article is excerpted from Climate Solutions’ upcoming report, Accelerating the Clean Energy Revolution: How the Northwest Can Lead. Views of the author are not necessarily those of the Tacoma Daily Index.Climate Solutions is co-convening the Symposium on Clean Energy: The Next High Tech Revolution in Seattle, this week, April 3-5.For more information contact Climate Solutions at (360) 352-1763.”