Still a chance for solar in Greenville

February 20, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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The parent company’s Chapter 11 filing and announcement that it wants to sell the United Solar Ovonic plant in Greenville doesn’t necessarily mean the end of solar panel production there.

“It’s simply a form of restructuring. It’s not a Chapter 7, which is a liquidation,” noted Rick Chapla, vice president of business development at The Right Place, who is familiar with the plant.

The parent company, publicly held Energy Conversion Devices Inc. in Rochester Hills, has been struggling for a couple of years and is scheduled to repay $263 million in loans in June that it is unable to pay. On Feb. 13, one day before it filed for Chapter 11 relief in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, ECD sold its subsidiary, Ovonic Battery Co. Inc. in Auburn Hills, to BASF Corp. for $58 million. Another subsidiary of ECD, Solar Integrated Technologies in Los Angeles, also filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in a separate proceeding.

In early November, ECD announced it was suspending manufacturing at United Solar Ovonics and putting more than 400 employees on furlough. Most of those were at the Greenville plant, which was seen as a replacement in the region for some of the jobs lost when Electrolux AB closed its refrigerator plant in Greenville in 2006, putting about 2,700 people out of work.

In late November, ECD announced a new president/CEO, Julian Hawkins.

USO, also known as Uni-Solar, reportedly still had about 70 people on the payroll in Greenville who are now on “indefinite furlough,” according to Chapla.

The plant manufactures flexible, thin-film photovoltaic solar energy receptors for use on commercial rooftops and other building-related products. The decline in U.S. construction with the recession, along with increasing production of lower-cost PV film in China, hurt the Uni-Solar market, as did the elimination of subsidies in Europe for solar energy production.

USO also had a plant under construction in Battle Creek, which has not opened.

In the last quarter ending Dec. 31, ECD had consolidated revenues of approximately $20 million and shipped products capable of generating 11 megawatts of electricity.

EDC was founded 51 years ago in Detroit and has been a pioneer in renewable energy technology development.

The Right Place will try to assist in the process of finding potential buyers of the Greenville plant, according to Chapla.

“I don’t think people should read more into this than what a Chapter 11 is,” he said, noting that both Chrysler and GM went through Chapter 11 reorganization.

“We need this company (in Greenville) and its technology to advance our energy production systems in this state and in this country. We need American-made products,” said Chapla.

He said a weakness in the U.S. manufacturing sector, compared to foreign manufacturers, is the lack of a “comprehensive energy policy for this country” in Washington.

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