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South Korean company to manufacture solar cells and modules in Eugene September 26, 2009

Filed under: Manufacturing,Oregon,Solar — nwrenewablenews @ 12:49 pm
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A South Korean company called Uni-Chem plans to buy the shuttered Hynix semiconductor plant in Eugene and make solar cells and modules, hiring about 1,000 people.

The deal will be welcome news in Lane County, which suffers 12.7 percent unemployment after losing more than 12,000 jobs in a year. The venture also solidifies Oregon’s status as a renewable-energy center, capitalizing on the region’s expertise making silicon computer chips.

Uni-Chem, a leather manufacturer hopping aboard the solar bandwagon, is acquiring the plant from South Korea-based Hynix for $50 million, according to Hankyung Economic News, a Seoul publication. Hynix, which has not confirmed the deal, closed the plant a year ago, putting 1,400 people out of work.

Uni-Chem plans to produce enough solar cells each year in Eugene to generate a gigawatt of power, said Roger Little, chief executive of Spire Corp., a Uni-Chem-affiliated company in Massachusetts. That’s more than twice the planned capacity of SolarWorld’s expanding 160-megawatt plant in Hillsboro, which was also converted from a structure built as a chip factory.

Little says his firm is working with Uni-Chem to design a factory for the Hynix building.

“They purchased the building, and we’re laying it out,” said Little, adding that the investment will increase. “To go the distance, it’s going to be like a billion dollars to do a gigawatt. For that, you’re talking 1,000 jobs maybe.”

U.S. local-content requirements drive Uni-Chem to hire Americans, Little said, instead of manufacturing abroad as Chinese solar companies do. Ultimately Uni-Chem could also make solar wafers in Eugene, he said, but will begin by buying them from suppliers.

Uni-Chem representatives met with Oregon officials this week at a solar conference in Hamburg, Germany, to discuss potential subsidies, Little said. SolarWorld and other green companies have received tax credits and other government support.

Uni-Chem is also applying for a federal investment tax credit for the Eugene operation under the federal stimulus program, Little said. The South Korean company’s jump into solar, which includes the purchase and conversion of a Spire chip plant into a solar factory in New Hampshire, comes as companies worldwide rush into renewables.

Analysts expect the solar industry to consolidate. But for now, expertise from a wide spectrum of industries spurs innovation, said Glenn Harris, chief executive of SunCentric Inc., a Grants Pass consultancy.

Uni-Chem, based in Ansan-si,  South Korea, is one of the Asian nation’s biggest leather fabricators, with $75 million in annual sales. The 35-year-old company changed its name in 2000 from Shinjin Leather Industrial Co., a trendy move that boosted its stock 24 percent.

Deal in works

Hankyung Economic News recently interviewed Lee Ho-chan, Uni-Chem chief executive officer, who said his company found about 20 former chip factories in the United States for sale due to the semiconductor oversupply.

“Uni-Chem is in the process of acquiring two former semiconductor sites, including the Hynix Eugene fab in Oregon,” said the chief executive, who goes by Daniel Lee in the West.

A Uni-Chem employee in Ansan-si said Friday that the deal was proceeding. She said details were available from a company representative in New York, who did not return phone calls.

Bobby Lee, a Hynix Semiconductor Manufacturing America communications officer in Eugene, declined to comment.

Earlier, Tim McCabe, Oregon Business Development Department director, had said an unidentified potential buyer faced a deadline Wednesday for a $2 million down payment on the Hynix plant. On Friday, McCabe, whose agency originally referred the potential purchaser to Hynix, would not say whether the company was Uni-Chem.

Little has sent engineers to check out the plant. They determined that a solar-cell line could go into the third floor.

“The lower floors need some modification,” Little said. “I understand associated with it is more property, so they could actually put up another building if they want to.”

The additional building could produce wafers, he said, which are processed into cells.

Relationship to Spire

Little’s company, Spire Corp., provides production lines and equipment to make solar cells and modules worldwide. Earlier this month, Uni-Chem agreed to buy 51 percent of the equity shares of Spire Solar Systems, a Spire Corp. affiliate, for $15.3 million.

Spire Solar Systems has modules sales contracts potentially worth $160 million. It plans to provide solar production lines to federal prisons, where inmates could get training and experience.

Uni-Chem is also acquiring Spire’s chip plant in Hudson, N.H., for $62 million. Part of that fabrication facility, or fab, will become a solar factory.

“By the end of next year,” Lee told Hankyung, “two formal fabs are transformed into photovoltaic cell/module production sites. Uni-Chem will develop into a major company in the U.S. photovoltaic market.”

As Uni-Chem branches out, Hynix America’s parent company in South Korea struggles. Hynix Semiconductor, the world’s No. 2 memory-chip maker behind Samsung Electronics, may end up in the hands of Hyosung, a medium-size fiber and chemicals firm.

Industry analysts express skepticism over the bid by Hyosung. They note its weak cash flow and lack of high-tech focus.

But in a land of conglomerates, where a leather company can go solar, almost anything’s possible.

Richard Read, The Oregonian


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