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Startup eyes Moses Lake for solar factory

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | July 9, 2020 12:08 AM

EPHRATA — An Oregon-based startup is looking to build in Moses Lake what it says would be America’s first integrated solar module and panel factory.

Violet Power is proposing building a plant in Moses Lake that could produce up to 5 gigawatts of solar panels per year — nearly half of current U.S. demand — within five years of construction, according to a company proposal.

“This is really, really exciting,” said Francine Sullivan, vice president for business development at REC Silicon, which has been leading the talks with Violet Power. “There’s a huge solar market in the U.S., but no one’s making modules here.”

However, Sullivan said that REC needs to resolve its $9.2 million outstanding property tax bill with Grant County in order to help Violet Power go forward with the project.

“We are doing what we can to turn it around,” Sullivan said. “We are trying to resolve this, and it’s important to resolve this on good terms.”

Neither Sullivan nor Grant County Commissioner Tom Taylor said they could give any details about a proposed tax settlement.

“REC has approached us with a settlement, but I cannot discuss the settlement specifics,” Taylor said. “We’re still exploring our options.”

Currently, REC owes back taxes of $4.85 million along with an additional $4.32 million in interest and penalties on its 206-acre production facility near the corner of Wheeler Road and Road N Northeast in Moses Lake.

Norway-based REC produces solar-grade silicon for use in making solar power modules. However, in 2013 China imposed steep tariffs on REC’s solar-grade silicon, effectively blocking the company from selling to Chinese solar module producers. Currently, Chinese companies account for more than 90 percent of the world’s solar module and panel production.

As a result, REC slowly laid off most of its roughly 500 employees, and it shut down production last year. It also disputed Grant County’s valuation of the facility over the last few years, noting that a factory that cannot sell its products isn’t worth what the county said it was.

In quarterly earnings reports since late 2018, REC Silicon President and CEO Tore Torvund said the company has been looking at alternative uses for its sole product — nearly pure silicon gas — either to improve rechargeable batteries or in domestic solar panel production.

In fact, Sullivan said REC has also been talking with two battery manufacturers that are interested in locating in Moses Lake.

Despite strong demand for solar power in the U.S., few companies have sought to take the leap and manufacture them here.

However, Violet Power is proposing “a state of the art solar manufacturing facility” in Moses Lake “which will free the U.S. from dependence on imported Chinese solar panels while fabricating and delivering complete solar systems that are cyber secure at an industrial scale,” according to a company proposal.

Sullivan said Violet Power is looking at locating across the road from REC’s plant in order to have access to the company’s “low-cost silicon.”

“They’ve been to Moses Lake and looked at the site,” she said.

Sullivan said that if the tax deal could be worked out, Violet Power presents “an interesting opportunity” for high-tech manufacturing and job development that would be good for the “general overall health” of the region.

“This is a unique opportunity for Grant County,” she said.