Solar Firms Are Slashing Jobs

We’ve all read the ugly news: some 500,000 jobs lost in December, and layoffs happening all over the tech industry. And while the solar industry may be the darling of the media, venture capitalists and policy-makers, it isn’t immune to job losses. In fact, it seems to be suffering more than other sectors out there, as large manufacturers expect solar module prices to decline in 2009 and young solar startups that grew too big too fast struggle in the tighter market.

Last week thin-film solar maker OptiSolar said it is laying off 300, or almost half, of its employees — that includes 105 of the 175 employees at its plant in Sacramento, notes the Sacramento Bee and 185 workers in Hayward. OptiSolar was expecting that the 1-million-square-foot Sacramento plant, with a capacity of 600 MW per year, would be the largest PV manufacturing plant in North America when constructed.

Now OptiSolar’s plant construction is on hold until at least the second half of 2009, while the company looks for more funding and applies for a government loan guarantee. That’s got to make California utility PG&E nervous, as OptiSolar’s thin film material is supposed to supply a massive PV solar power plant in the desert to meet the state mandated goal of clean power as early as 2010. OptiSolar spokesperson Alan Bernheimer told us the layoffs are not expected to change the timeline of its solar power projects.

We’ve also heard rumors that solar thermal company Ausra has been cutting staff. An Ausra spokesperson we spoke with said that the company doesn’t comment on staffing decisions. SunEdison is reportedly doing significant layoffs, too.

But layoffs aren’t just happening for the solar startups. On Monday solar manufacturer SunTech said that it laid off 800 people, or 10 percent of its staff at the end of last year, and has curbed a plan to recruit 2,000 more workers.

In the last month, Day4 Energy, GT Solar, Emcore and Advanced Energy all have announced layoffs. Nat Bullard, a senior analyst at New Energy Finance, told us recently to expect a lot more of that in 2009.

Other large solar firms have announced delays, suspensions and scale-backs of solar plants, which often times means layoffs down the road. Last week, Intel-spin-off SpectraWatt said that it put its plans to build a factory in Hillsboro, Ore., on hold after being unable to secure financing. The delay is supposed to push back SpectraWatt’s first solar-cell shipments by five or six months. Towards the end of 2008, German solar-cell manufacturer Q-Cells temporarily halted production at a factory, while U.S. solar-cell maker Evergreen Solar suspended plans for an $800 million factory in Asia and closed its pilot plant in Massachusetts.

Who knows how many more firms will be announcing, or admitting to layoffs, but we’d guess the first two weeks of 2009 are a solid indicator of a solar downsizing trend that will last many months.

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