Outlook for solar cells is sunny

An assembly line of solar cells at SolarWorld, the largest solar-cell manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere, which just opened in Hillsboro, Oregon, near Portland.

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Bill Rakde: How are you supposed to feel these days if you're in the renewable energy business? There has been a big push for new energy sources because of high oil prices, Mideast tensions and climate change. But now oil has gotten much cheaper, which hurts the renewable business. And it's harder to borrow money now to expand production and research. As Mitchell Hartman reports, a newly open solar-cell plant in Portland, Oregon, is trying to take all these developments in stride.


Mitchell Hartman: How big is the biggest solar manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere?

Well, SolarWorld VP Bob Beisner walked me down one corridor a quarter-mile long. At one end:

Bob Beisner: This is our growing room floor. We melt down raw polysilicon at 1,400 degrees centigrade, then . . .

At the other end of the plant, 100,000 solar cells, each about the size of a CD case, will come off the line every day. That's as much solar-energy capacity as the entire U.S. produced back in 2003.

Bob Beisner is American, but his boss isn't. SolarWorld is a German company. Its biggest competitors are Kyocera, Sanyo, and Sharp from Japan, and Q-Cell, another German firm.

Marc Tarpenning scopes out renewable energy prospects for a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. He says countries like Germany and Japan are way ahead.

Marc Tarpenning: Other countries say for the next 20 years, here are the investment tax credits, or the feed-in tariffs, or whatever it is that they're using to stimulate alternative energy.

That's given foreign businesses the edge up until now. But the outlook for solar entrepreneurs here has improved with Congress's extension of renewable energy tax credits for eight more years. That's good timing, because the solar industry faces a squeeze right now-with financing tougher to come by, and oil prices down from historic highs.

SolarWorld's Bob Beisner says his company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in solar production.

Beisner: This is what drives the cost of solar down. So that actually, in the not-distant future, we'll be at a grid-parity. That it would cost you about the same amount of money to get a solar array up as it would to be buying it from your local utility.

When could we reach that point? Ron Pernick crunched the numbers for his research firm, Clean Edge. He says in some places, we're already there.

Ron Pernick: If I live in San Diego and I'm paying 28, 32 cents-per-kilowatt-hour, solar can look pretty good. Especially if I can get some rebates from California, which are available, and a tax credit. Then it's already at cost-parity."

Pernick predicts cost-parity nationwide as early as 2012.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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