Hillsboro solar panel factory shuts down, 170 laid off
In another setback for the former SolarWorld factory in Hillsboro, SunPower announced Thursday, Jan. 7, that it would close the 47-acre solar panel manufacturing facility and lay off 170 workers.
The factory was originally built in the 1990s after a $500 million investment from the Japanese semiconductor company Komatsu Silicon America.
But Komatsu never opened the facility, which sat idle for nearly a decade before SolarWorld began manufacturing solar panels there, thanks in part to state tax breaks.
At its peak, SolarWorld was the largest solar panel material-producing company in the United States, employing more than 1,000 people.
But a series of challenges, including competition from Chinese rivals, led SolarWorld's parent company, SolarWorld AG, to file for insolvency in Germany in 2017.
SolarWorld laid off hundreds of people from its Hillsboro facility in 2017 as it tried to stay afloat. By late 2018, the facility employed only 250 people.
The future of the facility looked bleak, but in 2018, executives from the Silicon Valley-based SunPower visited the site, and later, purchased the factory for an undisclosed amount and began production.
SunPower's decision to purchase the factory came shortly after President Donald Trump approved tariffs on manufacturing products, including solar panels.
Prior to SunPower's purchase of the Hillsboro factory, much of its manufacturing operations took place in southeast Asia and Mexico.
Anticipating the company would pay millions under the tariffs, Sunpower CEO Tom Werner fought against them.
After the tariffs were put in place, Werner said purchasing the Hillsboro factory was an effort to do more manufacturing in the United States.
Despite a 2020 review by the U.S. International Trade Commission, which stated that Trump's tariffs have not helped solar producers gain ground against foreign competitors, Trump increased tariffs on solar panels last fall.
Optimism for the Hillsboro factory was short-lived. SunPower announced last year it would sell the property to Japanese technology company NTT, which said it would build a 1 million-square-foot server farm on the site, according to reporting by The Oregonian/Oregonlive.
At the time, SunPower said it would continue making solar products on a portion of the site, according to The Oregonian/Oregonlive.
In a statement Thursday, SunPower CEO Tom Werner said the company has changed its plans after spinning off the portion of the business that manufactured solar panels.
"We made the difficult but necessary decision to close our plant after careful evaluation and the change in focus of our business over recent months," Werner said. "We recognize how hard this is for all the employees impacted and are dedicated to helping them through this transition."
SunPower plans to cease operations at the factory by March and fully shut it down in early June "while simultaneously looking into other options," the company said. "These include selling the plant, exploring a joint venture option or assessing potential partnerships."
Factory jobs in Oregon were hit hard in the beginning of the pandemic, dropping more than 8%, according to data from the Oregon Employment Department. Such jobs haven't rebounded in recent months.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional information about solar panel tariffs.
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