New solar plant in Portland touted as good taxpayer investment

New solar plant in Portland touted as good taxpayer investment »Play Video
TJ Haile was unemployed for about a year before being hired at the new solar plant SoloPower in North Portland. It is expected the company will employ 450 people in the next three years.

PORTLAND, Ore. - A new solar plant now up and running in North Portland received public funds and is slated to bring about 450 jobs to the city in the next three years.

Seventy percent of the funding for SoloPower is coming from taxpayers, both locally and nationally.

The company makes super thin and flexible solar panels. It will target commercial buildings as its customers rather than homes and neighborhoods.

At the ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday, Mayor Sam Adams tried to allay the fears some people may have about the investment of public funds after the failures of companies like Solyndra and Abound. He said it will be a good investment for taxpayers.

"That's why even though ours is a loan, it's actually not even a loan, our contribution to this project is a backstop to a state loan, so we didn't even have to write a check," he said.

What he's saying is that Portland's risk in the venture is the $5 million backing of a state loan to SoloPower. He calls it "a backstop," with the company's equipment as the collateral.

Overall, SoloPower is slated to receive nearly $200 million in loans from the U.S. Energy Department and another $40 million in state and local funds and tax breaks.

It comes as SolarWorld in Hillsboro, supported by $100 million in state and local tax incentives, is struggling.

But if it's such a good industry and the Chinese are chomping at the bit to get their products into the United States, why does it need public investment?

"The Chinese are taking over the traditional crystalline photovoltaic industry because they're state-owned companies," Adams said.

He called it a "myth" that every successful business venture happens only with private money.

SoloPower's CEO, Tim Harris, refused to discuss specifics about the taxpayer's return on investment – in regards to the cost per watt – and would only say the cost per watt is "good enough" so that the company should turn a profit by early next year.

SoloPower's 450 jobs are expected to have an average salary of $51,000 a year.

TJ Haile of Northeast Portland got one of those. Until getting hired at SoloPower, she was unemployed for about a year after being laid off from her job at Siltronic along with 350 others.

Now Haile's in charge of the machine that tests the solar panels for how much electricity they conduct. She's one of 60 workers already hired by the cutting edge company.

Adams said he wants Portland's role in clean energy to be what Houston's is to oil.