Canadian firm buys OptiSolar factory operations

A Canadian solar power company has purchased OptiSolar’s now-shuttered manufacturing operations at McClellan Park, reviving hopes that the factory can be a green-tech anchor for the region.

Mike Matvieshen, president and CEO of EPOD Solar, said Thursday that an assembly line at McClellan is likely to restart in September.

Matvieshen said it’s not clear how many jobs at the site will be restored. In addition, he said, EPOD has not determined when or if it will follow through with expansions originally planned by OptiSolar.

“It really depends on what happens in the market,” he said.

EPOD is based in British Columbia but is relocating to Hayward. The company announced earlier this week that it would buy OptiSolar’s Hayward and McClellan operations for $260 million in stock.

The Hayward plant has the capacity to produce 30 megawatts of solar cells annually. A robotic line at McClellan assembles the cells into panels for installation. The robotic process is meant to deliver panels at a particularly low cost.

OptiSolar had planned to install a huge amount of additional solar-cell manufacturing capacity at McClellan to supply a planned 550-megawatt solar farm – bigger than any yet built – in San Luis Obispo County, as well as other projects. The factory would eventually have employed as many as 1,000 people. Sacramento County offered a $20 million package of long-term tax incentives to lure the company, and its arrival in 2008 was an economic development coup for the region.

But OptiSolar quickly ran out of money after the economy soured last fall, and the solar-cell lines at McClellan were never built. Mass layoffs started in January, and in March the company sold off its business operations to First Solar, a major manufacturer based in Arizona.

EPOD’s plans are more modest than OptiSolar’s.

The company has a small plant in Wales and is planning to build a 30-megawatt factory in Germany. It has a project pipeline totaling 117 megawatts – all outside the United States – that it hopes to develop over the next three years. That means it won’t need additional capacity at McClellan unless it brings in substantial new business.

EPOD builds and operates “solar parks” and sells the electricity they produce. The company was founded in 2002, and now runs a handful of parks – mainly in Germany – with a combined power capacity of 1.5 megawatts. It has announced deals to build two additional parks totaling 7 megawatts in Ontario, Canada.

Financing large solar developments of the type EPOD hopes to build has been difficult since the credit crunch hit last fall. Globally, solar panel shipments will drop more than 30 percent this year, according to a forecast by Navigant Consulting.

EPOD plans to reopen a $300 million loan guarantee application that OptiSolar submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy in February. It is also hoping for help from a new federal program meant to boost exports of renewable energy equipment, Matvieshen said.

OptiSolar listed roughly 700,000 square feet of its McClellan space with a broker earlier this month. Matvieshen said EPOD would likely continue to seek a new tenant for at least some of the space. McClellan officials and the real estate broker both declined to comment.

Rob Leonard, Sacramento County’s economic development director, was pleased to learn of the deal Thursday.

“It’s good for McClellan and good for the region,” he said.

EPOD has been privately held but is in the process of going public by merging into Allora Minerals Inc., a shell company listed on the Over-The-Counter Bulletin Board. The public company will be called EPOD Solar Inc.