Marysville firm is solar industry’s shining example

MARYSVILLE — While success in the fledgling solar-power and alternative energy industry has been hit and miss for some, for Silicon Energy of Marysville, it appears to be a hit.

The state’s first solar-panel manufacturer employs 27 people and has sold roughly 600 systems since 2010, company spokesman Stu Frothingham said.

The company makes panels that others in the industry say are as good or better than any others on the market. With that quality also comes a higher price.

Silicon is one of only two solar-panel manufacturers in the state. The other is itek Energy of Bellingham. The systems are installed by separate companies.

The alternative-energy industry was an issue in this year’s gubernatorial campaign. Former U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, now governor-elect, touted the success of several businesses in his book “Apollo’s Fire,” in which the Democrat called for a shift toward greater use of solar, wind and other “green” power. The success of some of the businesses cited as examples by Inslee was challenged by Republicans.

Inslee, invited by the company, toured the Silicon plant early in his campaign. He was impressed, said Jamie Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor-elect.

“They’ve been doing a lot of great work growing their company,” she said of Silicon.

The firm has two branches, in Marysville and in Mount Iron, Minn. Both are owned by Newport Partners of Irvine, Calif.

The Marysville branch started in 2007 as an outgrowth of Outback Power, which makes power inverters, at a location near the Arlington Airport.

Silicon spun off with about five employees and focused on research and development until 2010, when it started manufacturing. It moved two years ago to a 20,000-square-foot space on 124th Street NE.

Silicon spokesman Stu Frothingham said the company does not receive any governmental assistance of the type that went to Solyndra, the California solar-power company that went bankrupt last year after being loaned more than $500 million by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Company officials attribute their success to their quality of their panels. By all accounts, that’s true, according to others in the industry.

“I think there’s some clear consensus, I don’t think anyone has any doubts as to their durability,” said Dave Cozin, president of Solar Washington, a solar-industry association. He’s also financial chief for A&R Solar of Seattle, an installer.

Silicon’s panels fared the best among several tested in 2010 by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Frothingham said. The report doesn’t mention companies by name “but we were given our data which showed us outperforming everyone else,” he said.

The company’s panels are built to last at least 50 to 60 years, and potentially as long as a century. That compares to about 25 years for most competitors, Silicon president Gary Shaver said.

The evidence is lying on the floor in the lobby of Silicon Energy’s Marysville headquarters.

Attached to two pieces of wood, pallet-style, is a 4-by-4 foot panel, or “module,” as the panels are referred to in the industry. The display sits about four inches off the ground. Visitors are invited to walk on it, to even jump up and down on it, to test its strength.

Company officials show a video in which a man they say weighs 255 pounds runs up and jumps onto the panel, stomping down with his legs as he lands. The module survives.

Another video shows a truck being driven over the module in the parking lot. It flexes but does not break.

Reeves Clippard, president of A&R Solar, has seen those demonstrations.

“That’s something I would never do with a traditional module,” he said. “I think they’re the most durable panel on the market that we’ve worked with. Compared to a traditionally framed module, their glass-on-glass design is definitely more durable.”

Silicon’s panels are made with glass on both sides rather than glass on one side and plastic on the other, as are most panels, company officials say. Silicon also adds an extra layer of bulletproof-glass type material, Frothingham said. The energy-generating part of the panel — brittle, paper thin and made of silica — is the middle.

The company encloses the electronic components in a side panel instead of having them exposed on the underside, protecting them from corrosion.

Also, most panels have metal ridges all the way around the structure, while Silicon’s have them only on two sides. That allows snow to easily slide off the lowest edge.

The company buys the components from suppliers and assembles the panels at its Marysville location.

Silicon’s panels cost up to 15 percent more than most others, Frothingham said. He declined to talk prices.

A group of investors on Whidbey Island put up $210,000 last year to install 132 of Silicon’s modules at Greenbank Farm, in a “solar P-patch” type of arrangement. That calculates to just under $1,600 per 4-by-4 module.

“I think they work great,” said John Hastings, president of Island Community Solar, the investment group.

“And they’ve been producing more than we expected.”

Up-front affordability has been perhaps the biggest roadblock to widespread use of solar power.

While the panels provide free electricity once they’re installed, systems on single-family homes often run $20,000 or more. Government and utility incentives for consumers can shave off a few thousand dollars, depending on the size of the installation.

The overall price trend for solar-power systems is downward, Frothingham said.

“We’ve probably come down 30 to 40 percent in two or three years,” he said.

He said Silicon is working on making some of its parts less expensive, such as using thinner aluminum frames on the sides and changing the way the panels are mounted on buildings.

“That’ll help the installers go faster, and it’ll be less materials needed,” he said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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