S.F. Bay area solar industry grows despite Solyndra failure

BELMONT, Calif. — Despite the high-profile collapse of Solyndra, the San Fancisco Bay area’s solar industry continues to grow.

Case in point: SunEdison, a worldwide developer of large solar power projects that is now moving its headquarters from Maryland to Belmont. Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday joined the company at its new home, a formerly vacant office building that will hold more than 400 people when the move is complete.

“We’re the innovative state,” Brown said, at a press conference packed with local dignitaries. “We’re going to invest in solar and make California not only the national leader — which it already is — but we’re going to make it the world leader.”

For SunEdison, California represents both a vast market and a deep talent pool.

The company has installed solar panels at 290 locations throughout the state, including Nellis Air Force Base, many Kohls stores and several Cal State University campuses. And the Bay Area boasts a workforce well versed in designing, financing and deploying solar systems.

“We believe that you have to be close to the market,” said Carlos Domenech, SunEdison’s president. “We believe that California will be the largest market, and we want to be part of that.”

In addition, few states have made as much of an effort to increase the use of renewable power and nurture the companies that produce it.

Brown earlier this year signed legislation that will require California utilities to get 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2020, up from the current legal requirement of 20 percent.

He also signed a bill by Assemblyman Jerry Hill that clarified a point of California tax law, ensuring that new solar installations don’t trigger property tax reassessments. That bill affects many of SunEdison’s customers, and Hill wrote it, in part, to lure SunEdison to the region.

“That gave us the confidence that the governor’s and California’s attitude and policy toward renewable energy is here to stay,” Domenech said.

The company is a subsidiary of MEMC Electronic Materials, which makes silicon wafers both for semiconductors and solar cells. MEMC and SunEdison in September acquired Fotowatio Renewable Venures Inc., a solar power plant developer in San Francisco previously owned by a Spanish company.

As a result, SunEdison already has about 100 employees in San Francisco. Of the 400 people expected to work at the new Belmont headquarters, the company expects that half will be transplants from Maryland.

The bankruptcy last month of Fremont’s Solyndra, which received $528 million in federal loans to build solar-cell factory, sent shock waves through the clean-tech industry and cost the Bay Area more than 1,100 jobs. And yet other solar companies — including SolarCity and SunPower Corp. — have added employees here. Brown on Monday described it part of the industry’s evolution.

“There’s a certain Darwinian struggle, and some make it, and some don’t,” he said. “So Solyndra fell by the wayside. But SunEdison … they’re in a similar area of renewable energy, and they’re here. So that’s what happens.”