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Jake Pixler points out details of solar panel.

Seraphim Solar lets the sunshine in with tour of plant

Stacks of Seraphim Solar panels.

By JACK WEATHERLY

At last, the sun has broken through and shed light on the solar-panel maker in west Jackson.

Seraphim Solar USA started making panels in February 2016 after it got its first order, according to production manager Jake Pixler.

The Mississippi Business Journal last was able to report on the project in April 2016, after it was announced in July 2015.

And for the first time since last year, after repeated attempts to reach Seraphim, someone spoke for the manufacturer.

The factory employs about 30 and its one line is operating at 20 percent capacity, Pixler said.

Pixler said he is optimistic because sales have finally taken off, coming out from under what he said were the effects of the Solyndra failure in 2011, in which the  U.S. government had guaranteed a $535 million loan.

Pixler said scores of small solar companies went under after the S0lyndra fiasco.

One of those was Twin Creeks Technologies in Senatobia, which closed its doors in 2012 after failing to achieve meaningful production or employment levels.

Its investors blamed Chinese dumping of lower-cost solar panels on the U.S. market, along with a flaw in the manufacturing process.

The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) invested $27.7 million in the project.

ABB’s subsequent occupancy of the 85,000-square-foot Twin Creeks plant meant that Senatobia could resume making payments to the MDA on $18 million it borrowed to build the structure.

Pixler said he worked for three years at Stion Corp., which makes solar panels in Hattiesburg.

Stion likewise has had trouble, and renegotiated its contract with the state in which its commitment of jobs creation was cut in half and its time limit to meet that goal was lengthened by five years, in exchange for unspecified collateral.

The maker of solar panels agreed in March 2011 to create 1,000 jobs by the end of 2017. Now it will have to create at least 500 jobs paying an average of $43,000 by the end of 2022.

Pixler said that when Seraphim started trying to create a market in the United States, the sales team “wasn’t versed in solar.”

Since that time, a sales leader grounded in the industry was hired, and the product is moving, Pixler said.

“This guy is getting orders for us, so now we’re ramping,” Pixler said.

Seraphim and the city of Jackson jointly announced in July 2015 a $50 million, 250-job project at 3111 Lawson St. in an abandoned warehouse.

The city has never revealed any agreement, and a message left Monday drew no response.

Otherwise, the project got help through two programs administered by the MDA.

The Mississippi Clean Energy Initiatives Program grants companies a 10-year exemption from state income and franchise taxes and well as sales tax.

Also, the State New Markets Tax Credit on Mississippi income tax or insurance premium. These credits act as a companion to the federal New Markets Tax Credit.

An expert told the Journal last year that the federal credit could amount to 37 percent of the total tax burden of the project.

Pixler led a tour of the plant last week, stopping at each point in the line to explain what was done at that stage.

Primarily an automated operation, he said that the majority of the work is done by specialized machines made in China, which is where the parent company is located.

The high-precision machines are not perfect, which is why they have human operators, Pixler said.

“It doesn’t happen very often, but they’re trained to watch it.” The operator shuts down the machine and gets someone to make an adjustment, he said.

The cells that comprise the panels are made overseas, in China, Vietnam, South Korea and other countries, he said.

Pixler said the complex process has upwards of 30 steps.

The company is operating only one shift now, with 26 operators out of full complement of 40 on the line, which, the company hopes will be joined by five other lines.

With full staffing on that many lines, the initial projection of about 250 would be realized over about five years, which is the stipulation for the Clean Energy Initiatives Program.

“Once we sell the capacity of line one, we’ll put in line two. Then we’ll build a second building with two more, then a third with two more,” Pixler said.

In the lobby of the 80,000-square-foot building is a sign on an easel touting Seraphim’s Eclipse 290-watt panel, “which made a lot of buzz” at a San Francisco trade show late last year, Pixler said.

Pixler hopes that the Jackson plant can eventually add the Eclipse as part of its product line to supply North, South and Central America.

About Jack Weatherly

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