Our Opinion: A sad end to solar manufacturing
It's the end of an era: The former SolarWorld solar panel manufacturing plant in Hillsboro is now expected to close its doors for good this year.
It's a tough break for 170 factory workers still employed at the facility, who join long unemployment lines during this tenacious pandemic — and follow hundreds more out the door, after years of cutbacks and layoffs at the plant.
The solar panel factory won a reprieve in 2018. This time three years ago, SolarWorld was seriously considering closing the plant, which had just undergone a painful round of job cuts. But rival company SunPower bought SolarWorld that year, and its executives decided to keep the Hillsboro facility open — at least, until now.
Read our Jan. 8, 2021, story on the closure of SunPower's Hillsboro facility, formerly owned by SolarWorld.
This is a frustrating finale after the hope and prestige that SolarWorld once focused on Hillsboro.
In March 2017, the Pamplin Media Group reported on the booming solar industry in Oregon, with Washington County as a highlight. SolarWorld Industries America Inc. had established its headquarters in Hillsboro and employed 800 people there — modest, compared to giants like Intel Corp. and Nike Inc., but still a proud and significant piece of the local employment picture.
Solar power itself was seen as a key component in the renewable energy landscape. Proponents admitted it wasn't going to replace so-called fossil fuels on its own, but along with wind and hydroelectric power, among other renewable-resource forms of energy generation, it carried the promise of a cleaner, more sustainable future.
Oregon, where Democratic lawmakers and the governor were beginning to talk about major legislation to promote "green jobs," was on board.
"We have a really great building, and we've had a really warm reception from the community and the state for doing a much bigger scale of solar manufacturing," a SolarWorld spokesperson said at the time.
Weeks later, SolarWorld announced the layoffs. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. The workforce at the Hillsboro manufacturing facility was slashed to a fraction of its former glory. The next year, SolarWorld itself was gone, swallowed up by SunPower.
What happened? SolarWorld's German parent company filed for insolvency in 2017. Executives said they couldn't keep up with rivals in China, which were able to "flood the market" with cheaper solar products. In 2014, five Chinese nationals were charged for allegedly hacking SolarWorld and stealing company secrets.
SolarWorld demanded tariffs on China, which the new protectionist U.S. president, Donald Trump, was happy to approve in 2018. But for SolarWorld, the damage had been done. Ironically, SunPower, which ended up acquiring SolarWorld, had been among several U.S. solar panel manufacturers to publicly oppose the tariffs over concerns about a trade war.
Oregon Democrats' efforts to institute a cap-and-trade regime and bolster the green energy sector have stalled out. Republican lawmakers walked out to deny quorums in 2019 and 2020, forcing Democrats to drop massive policy bills. They have the numbers to do so again in 2021.
The Trump administration also rolled back many of the environmental initiatives approved under President Barack Obama. Most notably, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement, which aims to curb climate change by significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The irony continues: SunPower's announcement last week came just months after Hillsboro had a front-row seat to the imminent peril of climate change. Oregon suffered its worst wildfire outbreak in memory when hot easterly winds — unusual for Oregon, but familiar to Californians as the infamous Santa Ana winds — whipped up fires burning in the Cascades, pushing them toward Portland, Salem and Springfield, and created tinderbox conditions that contributed to new wildfires near Henry Hagg Lake and Chehalem Mountain, just a few miles from Hillsboro. More than 1 million acres of forestland in Oregon burned, and thousands of structures were destroyed, many of them in Southern Oregon.
Read our Sept. 16, 2020, editorial urging state and federal action to curb climate change in the wake of devastating wildfires.
Solar power itself hasn't gone the way of the dodo, but the heyday of the U.S. solar industry is over. Hillsboro has had a front-row seat to that, too. The market is now dominated by Chinese manufacturers at a time when bilateral relations between Washington, D.C., and Beijing are strained.
Oregon itself is fortunate. The mighty Columbia River demarcates much of our northern state line, and a set of dams generates much of the Pacific Northwest's power. The state knocked down the old Trojan nuclear power plant near Rainier nearly 15 years ago. Hillsboro itself is recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Green Power Community, ranking first in the country for green power usage.
But while this is a sad inflection point for the remaining factory workers whose jobs will be lost as Hillsboro's once-ballyhooed solar panel manufacturing plant finally closes its doors, it's also a somber moment for the community and the cause of green energy.
The United States doesn't have the most to lose from climate change. That would be a low-lying coastal country like, say, Bangladesh, where millions of residents were displaced last year by flooding and projections of sea level rise are dire; or a country like Kenya, near the equator, where much of the arable land exists near a climatological "tipping point" ever more threatened by higher temperatures; or an island state like Kiribati, whose atolls could be completely submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean.
But if preserving life and livelihood in other countries around the world isn't enough motivation already, the Western experience shows that the United States will hardly be unscathed. Oregonians were shocked by days of orange skies, choking smoke in the air, and hundreds of thousands told to evacuate or get ready to go. But in recent years, throughout much of California, this has become nearly routine — which is not to say any less devastating when a fire literally destroys Paradise, for instance, as in 2018. Eventually, everyone will feel the acute effects of climate change.
We can and should still take major steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. Hillsboro will continue to be a leader in that effort. But as we work toward a brighter, more temperature future, solar panels made right here in western Washington County won't be part of the solution — and that is a shame.
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