Tucson tech: Tucson-based Solon expanding its solar presence beyond state

2013-04-09T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:03:43Z Tucson tech: Tucson-based Solon expanding its solar presence beyond stateDavid Wichner Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A year after its insolvent German parent was saved from possible oblivion by a buyout, Tucson-based solar-energy provider Solon Corp. is expanding into new markets outside of Arizona.

Solon - which shut down its local solar-panel manufacturing line here in 2011 amid a flood of cheap solar panels from China - says it has added some 15 staffers since last summer to broaden its reach beyond Arizona.

While a few of the new hires are based in Tucson, most are spread around the nation as Solon seeks to expand its presence nationwide.

The company has set up regional directors in California, New Jersey, Florida and Puerto Rico, and it added a Southwest regional director in Phoenix, where Solon has had engineering and sales offices. Solon now employs about 60 people companywide, including 25 in Tucson.

The recent expansion is a good sign for Solon, which saw its German parent, now known as Solon Energy GmbH, file for the equivalent of bankruptcy in December 2011. The company was given a new lease on life a few months later, when its assets were snapped up by a United Arab Emirates solar company, Microsol.

Solon's move to expand outside of Arizona is partly a natural progression and partly a reflection of local politics.

Solon President and CEO Dan Alcombright noted that of the roughly 100 megawatts (DC) worth of photovoltaic systems the company has installed, 65 MW are in Arizona.

"We built up our skills in Arizona, and that's been very good to us," Alcombright said.

On the other hand, Arizona has become less supportive of solar politically.

The new, all-Republican Arizona Corporation Commission has cut ratepayer-funded incentives for rooftop home and business solar installations, as major utilities including Tucson Electric Power Co. reached incremental goals for such "distributed" renewable energy projects mandated under the state's renewable-energy standard.

And, expressing concerns over costs to ratepayers, one commissioner floated the idea of reducing the renewable-energy mandate, which calls for state-regulated utilities to get power equaling 15 percent of their retail power sales from renewables by 2025.

"The Arizona market is going to kind of flatten out here, and maybe 'flatten out' is even an optimistic view," Alcombright said, adding that Solon remains committed to expanding solar in Arizona.

Despite the well-publicized collapse of a number of solar technology companies, Solon and others remain strong, Alcombright said.

And the cost of solar has dropped so far - despite a steep tariff imposed on Chinese solar panels - that solar is reaching cost-competitive status in some areas where traditional grid power is expensive, he said.

"We're really at that crossover point in the industry where we can do projects without incentives," Alcombright said, citing a project under planning in New Mexico without state incentives.

While Solon Energy GmbH makes solar panels at a plant in Berlin, and Microsol makes panels at a plant in Fujairah, UAE, for now all that product is being sold in the European market, Alcombright said.

Solon Corp. is buying third-party panels for now but expects to begin using panels made by its German affiliate and parent company by 2014, he said.

Soon, the company expects to announce new projects in New Mexico, California and other new markets.

Solon also is working on a new version of its SOLquick panel, which features an integrated, slanted mount for flat roofs. The product was tested with a pilot installation at the University of Arizona's Biosphere 2 near Oracle.

"We've been able to continue to sell the product, and we're moving ahead with a new version of the product," Alcombright said, declining to elaborate.

Recently completed Solon projects in Arizona include the 10 MW Black Mountain project near Kingman, the 5 MW Prairie Fire array on Tucson's southeast side and a 1.15 MW, multicampus system for the Tanque Verde Unified School District.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

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