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State's ventures into alt-fuel markets net few jobs

Courtesy of Stion Corp. Stion Corp. will build three solar facilities for Entergy in Mississippi.

Courtesy of Stion Corp.
Stion Corp. will build three solar facilities for Entergy in Mississippi.

Update: An earlier version of this article misstated that Khosla had controlled three companies, which was reflected in a headline.

 

 

By Jack Weatherly

Solar-panel maker Stion Corp. is the only one of three alternative-energy companies that received a total of about $175 million in loans, plus other financial backing from the state of Mississippi that actually has employees today.

Two of the companies — Stion Corp. and KiOR inc —are controlled by Menlo Park, Calif.-based Khosla Ventures, led by billionaire Vinod Khosla.

Stion, which employs about 200 at its Hattiesburg manufacturing facility, will start building the first of three pilot projects for Entergy Mississippi this spring.

Twin Creeks Technologies — which likewise was to produce solar panels, and KiOR Columbus, which was to make gasoline from wood chips — are shuttered, despite promising 1,500 jobs, direct and indirect.

» READ MORE: Entergy gives solar a shot

The Mississippi Development Authority lent $75 million to Stion —then a struggling San Jose, Calif.-based solar panel firm with a manufacturing facility in Hattiesburg — plus tax and training incentives.

That enabled the takeover by Khosla Ventures, according to a document dated Nov. 8, 2013 and included in a Nov. 29, 2013 article by Greentech Media.

That came after Twin Creeks shut its doors about a year earlier and left the state with an 80,000-square-foot  building designed and built for the solar-panel manufacturer. The state has ownership of the building and is actively marketing it, according to Marlo Dorsey, chief marketing officer for the Mississippi Development Authority.

Twin Creeks and KiOR were projects approved during the last term of former Gov. Haley Barbour.  The loan to Stion was set in a binding memorandum of understanding in March 2011, also on Barbour’s watch, Dorsey said in an email Tuesday.

Prior to the agreement with Entergy, Stion’s in-state efforts only amounted to building “a solar carport” in its Hattiesburg factory for demonstration purposes, in addition to other “sample projects”  in Gulfport,  said Jeffrey Cheng, Stion vice president.

“We’d love to see more in Mississippi, obviously,” he said.

Cheng rejected the report that Stion had been insolvent when Khosla took control, though he did confirm that Khosla is “our majority owner” and has been an investor since the research and development phase in 2006.

Cheng said that the company has built other solar projects around the country and also provided service for others.

Meantime, the industry saw a 41 percent increase in 2013 over the previous year in solar installations, according to National Geographic magazine.

Stion had not provided a list of those projects for this article as of publication deadline.

The state, through the Mississippi Development Authority — lent $75 million to KiOR, which shut down last year and is embroiled in a court dispute with the state.

The startup said it would create 1,000 direct and indirect jobs, with the Columbus plant being one of three facilities in the state. The work force stood at about 100 when the plant, the only one built, was closed.

The state provided $27.7 million to construct a sophisticated 80,000-square-foot building for California-based Twin Rivers, whose chief executive was Siva Sivaram, never produced salable panels because of what it said was defective machinery provided by a vendor.

Barbour and the Mississippi Development Authority also blamed the dumping of cheap solar panels in the U.S. market by China.

KiOR, meantime, was to produce motor fuel from cellulose, but never achieved the quantity or quality that it had said it would. It shut down in January 2014 and let its 100 employees go.

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About Jack Weatherly

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