TIPTON — Competitors’ collapses that drew criticisms to the U.S. solar industry do not mean the manufacturer planning a major expansion to Tipton County faces the same ill fate, the company says.
A handful of hires have already happened in Indiana, a spokesperson for the company said Tuesday.
Abound Solar Inc. has remained adamant publicly for more than a month that it is operating smoothly and is not coping with the same struggles that led to the bankruptcy of fellow stimulus beneficiary Solyndra LLC.
Abound is using a $400 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to expand in Colorado then into Tipton County, where the company says it will add at least 850 jobs.
Solyndra, which received approval in 2009 for a $535 million loan guarantee, has brought the government program as well as the entire U.S. solar industry under public scrutiny after the company filed for bankruptcy.
The company followed Evergreen Inc. and SpectraWatt Inc. as the third U.S. solar equipment producer to file for bankruptcy within a month.
Abound on Monday also announced CEO Tom Tiller would step down for personal reasons. The company has appointed Craig Witsoe, head of Lineage Power, to take over the position.
“Solar is a relatively young market and there are going to be growing pains,” Abound wrote in the newsletter. “We believe that we are prepared to meet these changes and the associated challenges head on.”
Tipton County Commissioner Jane Harper said Tuesday area residents began contacting her soon after Solyndra collapsed. Concerns have emerged about whether Abound would actually begin operating at the never-used plant at the corner of U.S. 31 and Ind. 28.
She accredited a lot of the suspicions not only to a frenzy of attention on the solar industry since Solyndra’s bankruptcy, but the history of the empty sprawling factory, which previously belonged to Chrysler and Getrag Transmission.
The two automotive companies built most of what would have been a transmission plant. But both owners backed out of the construction in 2008, when the building was about 90 percent complete.
“[Area residents] just are more wary because, let’s face it, that building has looked like it has right now since 2008,” Harper said.
Every indication is that the company remains healthy, she said.
“They’re trying to button up the plant right now,” she said. “They’ve kept their payments current with Tipton Utilities. ... Say they were late on payments or didn’t return emails, I’d be a little worried. They’re still doing everything they said they would.”
But it will require patience as Abound creeps toward its expansion to Indiana.
The set-up of the DOE loan guarantee requires the company to first add two lines to the one it started with at its plant in Longmont, Colo. Most of the loan, $300 million, comes afterward so the company can add production lines in Tipton.
Julian Hawkins, a senior vice president for Abound, said the project is “on track” as the company finishes installing its second line in Longmont. The addition of the third line should finish in the first half of 2012, he said.
The company has filled a few management positions so far for the Tipton County plant.
Most hires, which Abound has said could reach as many as 1,000, will not happen until the production lines ramp up over the next couple years.
The company expects to have the factory fully operational by 2014.
Abound says on its website the Tipton plant is still in planning stages and the company will post jobs online as they open.
About 80 people have begun working for the company this year in Colorado, Hawkins said, bringing total employment up to 400.
Much of Abound’s ability to survive in the solar market will depend on the company’s ability to reduce production costs below $1 per watt.
A key to that is a thin-film coating of cadmium-telluride, a semi-conductor used by Abound, as well as solar giant First Solar and global conglomerate General Electric. The material is cheaper but less-efficient at converting sunlight to electricity than a material commonly used by industry titans in China, polycrystalline silicon.
While Solyndra, like Abound, produced thin-film solar panels, one point Abound has noted as an advantage it had over its now-defunct competitor was Solyndra produced cylindrical panels at a much higher cost.
• Daniel Human is the Kokomo Tribune business reporter. He can be reached at 765-454-8570 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.