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Roseville solar start-up gets federal boost to build new plants
Dale Kasler  |  10-Mar-2010

Roseville solar start-up gets federal boost to build new plants

By Dale Kasler
dkasler@sacbee.com
Little by little, Sacramento is creating a green-tech economy. Tuesday, it made some important headway in the solar energy business.

A Roseville company announced that it has received $25.7 million in federal economic stimulus assistance to build a solar panel factory and a 10-megawatt electricity-generating plant powered by the sun.

The move by Solar Power Inc. is particularly significant because it will bring up to 100 factory jobs to the local area. Although Sacramento has had some success in growing green companies, it has struggled somewhat to create manufacturing jobs.

The Roseville company, like many of its peers in the solar business, so far does all its manufacturing in China.

"Expanding our manufacturing base to California will significantly enhance our ability to meet growing demand," said Steve Kircher, Solar Power's chairman and chief executive.

Both Solar Power facilities will be built somewhere in Sacramento County. That's because Sacramento County officials made the stimulus award. The package will let the company borrow money at tax-exempt, low interest rates.

The company will also relocate its 63-employee headquarters from South Placer County to the site of the solar panel factory, said Jeff Pontius, executive vice president.

Pontius said Solar Power still needs to line up additional financing to get the two projects off the ground. He said the generating plant alone, which will produce electricity for sale to a utility such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District or Pacific Gas and Electric Co., is a $50 million project.

Solar Power, a publicly traded company founded in 2005, is one of more than 70 green-tech firms doing business in the Sacramento area. Business leaders and elected officials have made green tech an economic development priority, arguing that companies want to locate in Sacramento to be close to the policymakers implementing California's groundbreaking climate-change and renewable-energy programs.

"One of the great things for Sacramento … is you are the seat of government for the largest economy in the United States," said Ron Pernick of Clean Edge Inc., a consulting firm with offices in the Bay Area and Portland, Ore.

Sacramento came in 10th in a recent report by Clean Edge on the nation's 15 largest green-tech economies. The rankings were based on job openings, investment activity and other factors.

Sacramento's green-tech drive is being aided by the federal government. Besides the tax-exempt financing committed to the Roseville company, the stimulus package includes about $29 million in various energy-related projects for the region.

Still, Pernick said Sacramento leaders will have to realize there's enormous worldwide competition for green industries – a broad field that takes in biofuels, wind energy, green-building design and more.

"There will not be one central hub," he said. "If there is one, it looks like it might be China."

Solar energy is one area where Sacramento is making some inroads; it gives companies easy access to an enormous market in a sunny climate.

At least three overseas solar companies have established U.S. headquarters in the Sacramento area. One company, South Korea's Millinet Solar, said last month that it will build a solar panel factory at McClellan Park. The plant will eventually employ 150 workers.

Sacramento's fledgling solar industry recently experienced a big setback, too. An East Bay company called OptiSolar was going to build a 1,000-employee factory, also at McClellan, before running out of money. Its space has been taken over by EPOD Solar of British Columbia, which has said it will build a smaller facility.

Pontius said Solar Power is close to announcing the locations for its two new facilities. "We're down to the final short list," he said.

The company's stock closed Tuesday at $1.11, up 8 cents, on the over-the-counter market