$70 million expansion set at BP Solar in Frederick

Doubling of panel production, 70 new jobs forecast by 2008

November 17, 2006|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun Reporter

FREDERICK -- BP Solar unveiled plans yesterday for a $70 million expansion of its manufacturing plant off Interstate 70, which will give it twice the capacity to produce solar panels and create 70 new jobs.

When completed, it will be the largest integrated solar manufacturing plant in North America, the company said.

Construction at the facility, which serves as BP Solar International's North American headquarters, will begin next year and is expected to be completed in 2008.

BP Solar, which has 2,200 employees worldwide, produces solar electric systems for residential and commercial customers. The plant in Frederick is one of the few that make the panels from start to finish; it takes crude silicon, casts and sizes it into square silicon wafers - just 200 microns to 300 microns thick - and assembles them as solar panels.

The expansion is the second significant one BP Solar has announced at the plant in the past two years. Last year, the company wrapped up a $25 million expansion that doubled the plant's capacity and introduced faster, more efficient manufacturing equipment.

The jobs being added over the next couple of years will be both technical and in manufacturing, and many won't require a high school diploma, said BP Solar chief executive Lee Edwards.

"So far, we haven't had a problem attracting quality people," Edwards said. The company did not receive any state or local tax breaks or other incentives toward the expansion.

The 140,000-square-foot expansion includes manufacturing, warehouse and meeting space. It also will have environmentally friendly features, such as water recycling and energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling.

The roof will have solar panels and a garden, which further reduce heating and cooling requirements. And the plant's 200 employees will get a new cafeteria and auditorium.

In the building where the silicon wafers are made, many employees yesterday sat at stations, monitoring the sophisticated machines doing the work. It's a great improvement over a few years ago, said Hank Zuretti, project manager for the expansion, when much of the process was manual.

BP Solar joins Lockheed Martin Corp., Fort Detrick and the National Cancer Institute in expanding at Frederick, said Richard Griffin, the city's economic development director.

Gaithersburg-based MedImmune Inc. is building a $250 million facility next door to BP Solar, he said.

"They're competing against the world in manufacturing these things, and they're doing it efficiently and cost-effectively in Frederick," Griffin said.

While the oil giant is banking on solar power becoming more popular, it is still expensive. Unlike plugging a cord into an electrical socket, consumers of solar power must make an upfront investment in hardware.

But with energy prices on the rise and the cost of solar power coming down, Edwards said, he anticipates a "crossover point" where more consumers will make the switch. However, he noted that many states do not offer incentives that make the investment more affordable.

Maryland residents can apply for grants of up to $3,000 toward the cost of a photovoltaic system of solar panels --- which can cost at least $20,000 for a single-family home and $2,000 for a solar water heating system.

Homeowners can also apply for a federal income tax credit of 30 percent of the cost of the system, up to $2,000.

"The incentives available in the U.S. have not been as motivating as in other markets," Edwards said.

And so BP Solar is focused on markets that have embraced solar energy and offer taxpayers more incentives to invest in solar systems, such as Germany, which allows residents to "sell" their unused power into the country's power grid.

The Frederick plant exports its products to BP Solar's plants in Madrid, Spain, and Bangalore, India, to supply demand overseas, Edwards said.

allison.connolly@baltsun.com

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