Semprius opens solar panel factory in Henderson

jmurawski@newsobserver.comSeptember 26, 2012 

— The distorted glass panes look ideal for home use as shower sliding doors or bathroom windows. But these panels, resembling rows of miniature fun-house mirrors, are not designed to screen out bathing nudes.

Instead, they magnify the intensity of sunlight by 1,100 times to maximize the potential of solar energy – a prospect that’s creating high hopes for a wave of green jobs in rural Vance County.

Durham startup Semprius on Wednesday marked the opening of its solar panel factory in Henderson, about 45 miles northeast of Raleigh, before an audience of more than 100 investors, customers, officials and employees. Gov. Bev Perdue was on hand, predicting that solar panels assembled here will be shipped to China bearing a “Made in the U.S.A” stamp.

In the coming years, the six-year-old company plans to employ more than 250 people in manufacturing and assembling its novel solar panel. Semprius stands to gain more than $18 million in state and local incentives if the jobs are delivered, and many of the positions are being filled by local residents who had previously commuted as much as one hour each way to the Triangle to find similar work.

In a solar industry that has long awaited its breakthrough moment, Semprius stands out for its list of accolades. The company’s panels were recognized recently by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as one of the world’s most promising transformative technologies. Energy giant Siemens, which builds power plants and utility equipment, recently bought a 16 percent stake in the company and plans to market Semprius panels to its worldwide customer base.

“This is very clearly an innovative product,” said Brian Daly, who heads Siemens’ Photovoltaic Americas Solar & Hydro Division. “It is a market-changer.”

Wednesday’s facility tour introduced visitors to an antiseptic laboratory setting, with its “clean room” and employees resembling hospital surgeons in protective body suits and hair nets.

Semprius claims its solar panels are so efficient that some day they will not require government subsidies, which in North Carolina cover more than half the cost of solar power installations. The efficiency factor of the Semprius panels is nearly 34 percent, almost twice as much as conventional solar panels.

The efficiency comes from the glass concentrators, which function like miniature magnifying glasses, and from a panel design that prevents overheating.

The technology’s limitation is that it’s a niche product best suited for industrial-scale projects in sunny regions such as Arizona and New Mexico, said Stephen Kalland, director of the N.C. Solar Center in Raleigh.

“This is not designed to replace the mainstream technology that’s in use today,” Kalland said. “But it’s definitely a real thing. The technology advance they have is very impressive.”

Semprius employs 65 people today, about 40 of them in Henderson. Jobs at the facility – in engineering, operations and maintenance – are expected to pay an average annual salary of $45,565, well above the typical wage in economically distressed Vance County.

Most of the employees who have been working here since construction began a year ago have experience in semiconductors or electronics. But not everyone.

Wayne Blackwell spent 31 years in the tobacco industry. Most recently the 60-year-old Henderson resident worked for two years building fuel tanks for boats before he was laid off in 2008, which was followed by nearly four years of landscaping and other odd jobs.

For the past month Blackwell has been assembling Semprius solar panel modules, the metal housing that encases the glass and components.

“I never thought there’d be a solar company here, or that I’d be working at one,” he said. “I felt like this would be job security – this place was here to stay.”

Deborah Slagle has been working here as a process technician since March. A 41-year-old resident of nearby Oxford, she has two decades of experience in semiconductor wafer processing.

“I like the direction the company was going,” she said. “It’s always best to work for a world leader.”

Even as the company goes on a publicity blitz to attract customers, Semprius acknowledges it will need to raise more venture capital to underwrite operations before it realizes a profit by 2015 at the earliest.

Success depends on finding customers willing to invest in the pricy solar panels. The Semprius technology is designed to scan the heavens on trackers, like giant mechanical sunflowers, so that the sun’s rays make a direct strike on the panels’ concentrators throughout the day.

Other than Siemens and Chevron, the company’s dozen customers are not being disclosed yet, but Semprius executives say their solar panels will be installed on solar farms starting next year. Panels have been tested at various electric utilities, and are currently undergoing tests in Charlotte and in Alabama, said Semprius CEO Joe Carr.

“The relationship with Siemens is our first channel into the market,” Carr said. “We’ve got a global footprint instantaneously.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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