Solar power giant embraces Quebec

BECANCOUR, QUEBEC - After a 17-month search covering more than 100 sites in 16 countries, solar-energy powerhouse Renewable Energy Corp. (REC) of Norway has settled on Bécancour, across the river from Trois Rivières, as the home of a new manufacturing plant to make polysilicon, a raw material used in the production of solar wafers and cells.

The project will be built in stages, starting in 2010, with an estimated price tag of $1.2 billion, making it one of the largest private-sector investments in the province in the last decade. Further expansion is possible because the site the company has leased in the Bécancour industrial park can accommodate four plants, and Premier Jean Charest said there have already been talks to that end with the company.

Pre-engineering will be conducted over the next six months, with actual production due to begin in 2012. When fully operational, the plant is expected to provide 300 full-time jobs and economic spinoffs for the province of $100 million annually.

Since production of polysilicon is energy-intensive, availability of a steady source of hydro-electric power at an attractive price was a key element in the final decision.

REC and Hydro-Québec have concluded a 20-year agreement providing electricity at the preferential rate already enjoyed by about 200 industrial customers.

"It has been a long journey to where we stand today," company president Erik Thorsen told a news conference in Bécancour yesterday attended by Charest and several local and provincial politicians. "We look forward to a long and industrious relationship between REC and the people of Quebec."

Charest said the project fits perfectly with his government's energy policy, and in particular its emphasis on clean, renewable energy.

"It's part of a broader vision of how we see the future of Quebec, and energy as a part of it," he said. "I want it to be a star project that'll generate interest for investors elsewhere in the world."

Only recently, Hydro-Québec announced a $1.9-billion upgrade of the Gentilly 2 nuclear-generating station, also in Bécancour.

It's also investing heavily in wind power.

"Energy is part of our DNA," Charest said.

Renewable Energy Corp. is one of the world's largest makers of solar-grade silicon, which is in short supply globally, and operates two plants in Moses Lake, Wash., and Butte, Mont. It also produces solar cells and modules.

The publicly-traded company had revenue of about $750 million for the first six months of 2008. Thorsen said it has 14 different expansion projects under way in Sweden, Norway, North America and Singapore.


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