Mention solar, and advocates of this renewable energy source salivate at the thought of solar panel farms spreading across California’s Central Valley, farther south in the Mojave, and in wide open spaces in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada. Solar companies have found a hub in Pasadena, and the industry performs decently in the Southland as well as the Phoenix area.
Overall more solar energy companies are attracting financing, including Solexant, a thin-film manufacturer based in Silicon Valley. Germany’s SolarWorld has only been in the US market since 2006, but has already built a large solar module plant that is humming along, enjoying a brisk business. What both of these companies have in common is that their operations are not in the Southwest, but in Portland, Oregon.
Portland, you say? The Pacific Northwest city that rests on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, and averages 37 to 38 inches of rain a year? The city that has some of the best coffee and doughnuts around, not to mention the country’s largest independent bookstore, great boutique hotels, plus no sales tax? How does solar fit in?
Portland’s emergence as a solar hub is not so far-fetched. The city of 580,000 talked and walked “sustainability” long before most of us knew what that word meant, and for that matter—before many of us were born. In the early 1970s, Portland’s urban planners had a hunch that if left unchecked, the city could grow and sprawl out of control. An urban growth boundary, regional land use plans, and numerous greenbelts are among the long term results. The region’s metropolitan area’s 2.2 million residents enjoy respectable public transportation (light rail is free downtown, and it’s connected to the airport), plentiful bike paths, and decent air quality. Population density is relatively high for a west coast city, and older neighborhoods have been redeveloped, increasing the presence of residents and businesses. The results are not bad—Portland is the third safest city in the US, and as for quality of life (how do they measure these things?), 42nd in the world.
So this increased investment in solar technology should not be a surprise. The Oregon government lured Solexant north, offering loans and tax credits to build a factory for its “nanocrystal ink” solar thin film modules. SolarWorld employs 650 locals and the company plans to increase the total amount of employees to 1000 by this fall, and has earned kudos for aggressively hiring war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A generation ago semiconductors were a large part of Portland’s economy. Many of those firms are now gone, but the space left behind leaves an opening for solar energy technology firms. Do not be surprised if more solar companies move here: a welcoming business and government climate, along with a quality of life enviable elsewhere, could convince more firms in this space to head north.