Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Vegas Solar plant closes after 14 months, $20m in federal subsidies...

The Amonix solar manufacturing plant in North Las Vegas, subsidized by federal tax credits and grants, has closed its 214,000-square-foot facility about a year after it opened.

Officials at Amonix headquarters in Seal Beach, Calif., have not responded to repeated calls for comment this week. The company began selling surplus equipment, from automated tooling systems to robotic welding cells, in an online auction Wednesday.

A designer and manufacturer of concentrated photovoltaic solar power systems, Amonix received $6 million in federal tax credits for the North Las Vegas plant and a $15.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2007 for research and development.

Rene Kenerly, a former material and supply manager at Amonix, said the plant has been idle since May 1, when he was laid off. At its peak, the plant had ramped up to about 700 employees working three shifts a day to produce solar panels for a utility customer in Amarosa, Colo., he said.

"I don't think they had a lot of training," Kenerly said. "There were a lot of quality issues. A lot of stuff was coming back because it had some functionality issues."

The Amonix plant was highly touted by political leaders and economic development officials when it opened in May 2011. Company executives said they would employ as many as 300 assembly line workers paid $12 to $14 an hour, plus benefits.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Gov. Brian Sandoval were among the political leaders who lauded the company when it announced it would start making solar panels in the Golden Triangle Industrial Park.

"Last year, Amonix CEO Brian Robertson was tragically killed in a plane crash and unfortunately the company was unable to recover from this difficult time," Reid said Wednesday in an e-mail statement. "Some people will be tempted to use today's unfortunate news for political gain. But I am hopeful that the bipartisan support for this project and the public-private partnership that helped make this and many other projects possible will not be degraded by dirty energy supporters for their own profit or political gain. The clean energy sector is too important to Nevada's future and I hope that those that publicly acknowledge this will continue to strengthen the bipartisan support for renewable energy programs and incentives that exists in Nevada."

Department of Energy press secretary Jen Stutsman said the project received bipartisan support from elected officials including Gov. Sandoval and North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck.

Amonix was selected for a grant under the Bush Administration's Department of Energy in 2007, and eventually received a total of $15.6 million under the grant, she said.

"The global solar industry is facing significant challenges that are impacting solar manufacturers worldwide," Stutsman said Wednesday from Washington. "Amonix, an innovative solar startup company with strong backing from Republicans as well as Democrats, received a tax credit to expand its American manufacturing operations and help ensure the United States continues to compete for the manufacturing jobs of the future. While today's news is disappointing, the United States simply can't afford to cede America's role in the growing, highly competitive solar energy industry."

The company announced 200 layoffs in January, one month after Robertson was killed in a plane crash in Pennsylvania.

"We are retooling to redeploy our next generation utility-scale CPV (concentrated photovoltaic) solar power system," company spokeswoman Kelly Rice said in an e-mail at that time. "During this time, we will ramp down our facility to about 100 jobs, and will ramp back up based on the manufacturing build plan in second half of 2012."

Founded in 1989, Amonix is headquartered in Seal Beach with additional facilities in Torrance, Calif., and North Las Vegas.

A hand-written sign posted at the shuttered plant Wednesday morning gave telephone numbers in California and Las Vegas for deliveries and inquiries.

Amonix had a five-year lease on the site with Operating Engineers. Donna Alderson, broker for CB Richard Ellis in charge of leasing the building, said she was told the facility would be vacated by the end of July and put back on the market for lease at about 30 cents a square foot.

"We didn't know how they would handle the exit, if it would be through bankruptcy," she said. "It's terrible. We don't need this, but it is what it is."

The North Las Vegas plant was a joint venture with Singapore's Flextronics Industrial. Amonix founder and chairman Vahan Garboushian had estimated capital investment of $15 million in the plant, including equipment, construction and tenant improvements.

Kenerly, the former Amonix manager, said the company was about $100 million in debt, including $34 million owed to Flextronics. Bombard Electric, the Las Vegas contractor that did the electrical work, has placed a lien on the property used for the solar panels, he said.

Robertson was the "front man" for Amonix, and when he died, a lot of investors pulled back, Kenerly said.

Mitchell "Moe" Truman, president of Pan Western, a transportation service in North Las Vegas, said his company is owed about $60,000 for shipping Amonix products to and from Colorado.

"I'll never see that money," Truman said. "I'd like to know how they burned through that money."

The closing of the Amonix plant quickly turned into political warfare Wednesday for U.S. Senate candidates Dean Heller and Berkley.

"Congresswoman Berkley, when you voted for the trillion dollar stimulus, you promised it would create 34,000 jobs in Nevada," wrote Chandler Smith, spokeswoman for Heller. "Nevada lost jobs. Congresswoman Berkley, you pushed $6 million in funding to a company that has created zero long-term jobs for Nevada. It's time for you to admit the stimulus - and your policies - aren't working."

Xochitl Hinojosa, communications director for Berkley, responded: "Shame on Senator Dean Heller. While Shelley Berkley and Republican Governor Brian Sandoval are working to make Nevada the clean energy jobs capital of America, Senator Heller is cheering the fact that hundreds of Nevadans have just lost their jobs because he thinks it will help his political campaign. However, Heller's rooting for failure should come as no surprise to Nevada's middle class, given his track record protecting tax breaks for corporations that ship American jobs overseas and defending China's unfair trade policies that are cheating Nevada workers out of thousands of good-paying jobs. It's time for Heller to put Nevada first by joining Shelley Berkley and Republican Governor Sandoval to find solutions that put people back to work. Those who are unemployed deserve more from their senator."

Amonix isn't the only solar company to go under after receiving an infusion of federal capital.

California-based Solyndra filed for bankruptcy last year after receiving $535 million in federal loan guarantees from the Obama administration.

Colorado-based Abound Solar, which received a $70 million loan guaranteed by the Energy Department, filed for bankruptcy in June, succumbing to intense competition from China that has sharply driven down the cost of solar panels, chairman Thomas Tiller said in a Reuters news article.

Tiller said the Chinese government provided about $35 billion in subsidies to Chinese solar companies, resulting in sharp growth in production capacity that outpaced demand and pushed down the price for panels more than 50 percent in just a year.

The global market for clean and renewable energies reached a record $260 billion last year and is expected to grow into the trillions over the next 20 years, the Department of Energy reported.

Solar manufacturing in particular is growing dramatically in the United States and around the world. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, employment in the U.S. solar industry has doubled to more than 100,000 since 2009.