Tariffs help solar panel maker Stion raise hiring

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News,Business

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Solar panel maker Stion says it will hire 23 more employees, bringing its total to 177 at its Hattiesburg plant, as new U.S. tariffs on Chinese solar panels cause an increase in demand for American-made units.

Peter DeGraff, Stion's executive vice president of sales and marketing, said Stion will expand operations from five days a week to seven and hire a fourth shift of workers. He said the machines that make solar panels in the highly automated factory will run much more often.

"That will, effectively, more than double our capacity there," he said.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Commerce Department said it would preliminarily impose tariffs of 18.6 percent to 35.2 percent on solar panels made by certain Chinese firms, saying that government was improperly subsidizing production. The Commerce Department must still finalize the ruling that also applies to panels with solar cells made in Taiwan. The Commerce Department said it found some Chinese firms were shipping ingredients to Taiwan and then shipping cells back to China for assembly into panels.

By making Chinese panels more expensive, DeGraff said the ruling has brought new customers to Stion.

"Demand in the last six weeks far outstrips production," he said. "We were a niche brand until now."

The San Jose, California, company is still far from reaching the $400 million investment and 1,000 employees it promised when it signed an economic development deal with Mississippi in 2011 in exchange for a $75 million loan and other incentives.

Stion says it has invested more than $150 million so far.

Stion leases 280,000 square feet of the former Sunbeam building in Hattiesburg, with most company investment coming in equipment. Because the state has certified that Stion has invested more than $100 million, taxes on its property have been cut by two-thirds. The company is paying $778,000 in taxes to Forrest County, Hattiesburg and the Hattiesburg schools, saving $1.55 million a year.

If the company doesn't hit the job or investment targets, it would be required to pay penalties, up to repayment of the entire loan balance.

"At the moment there are several medium-term expansion scenarios being evaluated so it would be premature to comment on what investment levels and job thresholds will be reached at the end of 2016," spokesman Frank Yang wrote in an email.

The company is one of several alternative energy companies that Mississippi aided under Gov. Haley Barbour. Solar panel maker Twin Creeks went out of business in Senatobia after receiving $27.7 million in aid but creating few jobs. Biofuel maker KiOR, after a $75 million loan, has suspended production at its Columbus plant because of technical problems with its refining process.

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