SOLAREX FADES AWAY

Solarex, there’s a name few readers may recognize. As the “Sol” clue in the name implies, Solarex was once a solar energy company that opened shop in Frederick, Maryland in the 1970’s. It was a pioneering company, far ahead of its time. Its high visibility plant – next to an interstate highway leading to and from Washington, DC – was partially powered by solar electric energy. It was a “breeder” facility (somewhat). The power of the Sun was used to help make products that converted sunlight to power.

Today, what was once Solarex is now part of the BP Solar chain of solar production facilities scattered around the globe. Today, Solarex is beginning to fade away, just as its original solar array faded out some time ago.

BP Solar has announced that it has ceased silicon casting, wafering, and cell manufacturing at the facility, laying off approximately 320 out of 430 positions at the site. Research, sales and marketing personnel will remain in Frederick for now.

BP has been on a solar cost-cutting mission since the beginning of 2009. It can’t compete with high cost solar products in a world where solar prices have dropped between 40 and 50 percent since the beginning of the global financial crisis about two years ago now.

It’s safe to say too, that as much as the recession, low cost solar products from China have cut into BP’s sales. Further, photovoltaic technology may have advanced beyond BP’s silicon-based photovoltaic products. That tried and true technology, versions of which BP made in Frederick, are the most efficient in terms of energy conversion. But if cost is a greater issue than efficiency, then thin film solar, using other technologies such as Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) and Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) seem to be the up and coming way to go for large scale projects in the megawatt-plus scale, utility grade installations. Large scale projects are the money makers for solar companies.

(Not to be left behind in solar energy, General Electric and Chevron have both entered thin-film solar development and exploratory partnerships. First Solar is currently the largest manufacturer of CdTe products.)

BP is not exiting the solar business, just downsizing its Maryland operations. The company is still upbeat about solar energy.

“The global solar market is expected to reach 12 GW in 2012 with the US growing to nearly 3 GW, and we are scaling up our supply chain to serve this rapid growth here in the US, in the European, and Asian markets,” said Reyad Fezzani, CEO of BP Solar. “The company is bringing its worldwide experience gained over 37 years as a solar product supplier and developer to both develop larger scale projects ranging from 1-300 MW in size and supply distribution partners serving residential and smaller commercial segments.”

In 2009 BP Solar increased its sales by more than 26 percent and expects to grow sales by 50 percent in 2010.

The move away from high cost solar manufacturing, such as the Frederick shop, has helped BP cut unit costs by a significant 45 percent making products more competitive in a global market.by Bruce Mulliken

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