Durham solar panel maker plans startling technology

Semprius stands to get $18 million to create 256 jobs and produce ultra-efficient panels.

Staff WriterJuly 20, 2011 

Semprius, a Durham semiconductor startup without a commercially-proven technology, stands to receive nearly $18.3 million from state and local governments for building a solar cell manufacturing facility near Henderson.

The full incentive package announced Tuesday is conditional on Semprius creating 256 jobs over the next five years at its planned pilot production plant. Those jobs - in engineering, operations and maintenance - will pay an average annual salary of $45,565, well above the typical wage in economically distressed Vance County.

The Semprius facility would begin producing high-performance solar panels by next year that company CEO Joe Carr says may be the most efficient in the world for converting sunlight to electricity. The technology concentrates the power of 1,100 suns - maximizing energy potential without burning the panels - but has yet to be produced on an industrial scale.

The Semprius panels have been demonstrated in laboratory settings. Two utility companies are testing Semprius solar panels with 2 kilowatts of capacity, smaller than many residential rooftop solar panels.

"The point is to get them out into the field, get footprints out in the utility companies so they can test them," Carr said.

Carr said Semprius has "de-risked" the precise manufacturing process of the panels and is confident it will work on an industrial scale to mass-produce solar energy that's about 30 percent cheaper than commercial panels today.

If the process works as expected, Semprius will have production capacity for 67,000 modules next year and nearly 2 million by 2015.

The promise of breaking the solar cost barrier and boosting semiconductor performance merited a prestigious $500,000 "genius" grant in 2009 for Semprius co-founder John Rogers from the MacArthur Foundation for his work in applied physics and semiconductors. And it continues to generate excitement.

Five-year-old Semprius also netted a $3 million federal stimulus grant from the Department of Energy as well as validation from German energy conglomerate Siemens, which this year bought a 16 percent stake in Semprius. That agreement includes a guarantee to purchase a portion of the solar panels made in Henderson, about 45 miles north of Raleigh.

Huge demand predicted

Developed by professors at the University of Illinois, the technology is based on peeling solar panels from the substrates in which the crystals are grown, a process that allows for the recycling of the costly substrate.

Carr said he is less concerned about meeting the state's annual hiring targets for the incentives than he is about meeting potential customer demand for his thin-film solar panels.

Semprius will have to create at least 10 of the jobs this year and at least 230 by 2015 to qualify for partial incentives. And it has to invest at least $89.7 million in land, buildings, machinery and equipment.

Semprius currently employs 29 people and has to keep those positions to qualify for incentives.

The average annual salaries will exceed the Vance County average of $30,004. The county, staggering under a 13.3 percent jobless rate in May, is chipping in $2.6 million toward the total incentive package.

"What we're looking at is the quality and salary of the jobs coming here," said Stuart Litvin, director of the Henderson-Vance County Economic Development Commission. "It sends a clear message that we're an extension of the Research Triangle area."

To qualify for the incentives, Semprius had to select North Carolina over other states. According to the Commerce Department, the state of Virginia offered Semprius an incentive package worth nearly $15.5 million.

Carr said Semprius also was courted by Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Arizona.

"Certainly the incentives were a big part of this," Carr said.

North Carolina ranked highest for its workforce and access to Interstate 85 for traveling from Henderson to Durham, where Semprius plans to keep its headquarters for at least several years, he said.

North Carolina's incentive package comprises more than a half-dozen sources, including $3 million in state job-development grants, $3.5 million in potential sales tax exemptions, $6.8 million in potential tax credits and $435,200 from the community college system to train Semprius manufacturing workers.

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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