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Latest failure from Barbour years: Stion to shut down plant in Hattiesburg

By JACK WEATHERLY

Stion Corp., the solar panel maker in Hattiesburg, will shut down, the company said in a letter.

The San Jose, Calif.-based company’s Hattiesburg facility has been operating since 2012, said in the letter it would “discontinue operations,” Greentech Media, an industry publication, reported on Monday.

Stion was one of five alternative-energy projects begun during the administration of Gov. Haley Barbour between 2004 and 2012 – all failed or failing.

As in the past, Stion said it has suffered from “intense, non-market competition from foreign solar manufacturers.”

In 2011, the state of Mississippi lent the company $75 million and local government agreed to accept fees in lieu of ad valorem taxes.

Stion promised to create 1,000 jobs by the end of 2017.

However, in a renegotiated memorandum of understanding in November 2015 with state and local government it agreed to create 500 averaging $42,000 by the end of 2022.

Vice President Frank Yang told the Mississippi Business Journal in July that the manufacturing operation had added 40 jobs in the past year, bringing the total to 150.

The statement about closure comes when the U.S. Trade Commission is drafting tariffs to level the international playing field to present to President Donald Trump.

“The company plans to execute an assignment for the benefit of creditors soon to sells its assets,” according to the letter. “The Hattiesburg . . . plant will initially be maintained as a turnkey solar manufacturing facility in hopes that a new owner can step in and operate the facility.”

Greentech Media quoted unnamed sources as saying that the last work day would be Oct. 27, but it said that Vice President Frank Yang would not confirm that.

A call to Stion on Wednesday by the MBJ was not returned. The company emailed the letter to MBJ on Thursday, though it did not make Yang available for an interview as it did with Greentech Media.

Among  other projects launched with support  from Barbour was Twin Creeks Technologies in Senatobia, in which the state invested $27.7 million but which never produced marketable solar panels and did did not come close to its commitment to create 1,500 jobs. It closed in late 2012.

The state leased the facility to ABB Low Voltage in December 2015. ABB, a Swiss firm, plans to hire 300 people over the next five years. Mississippi  gave ABB $3.5 million for infrastructure and training. Senatobia resumed making payments to the Mississippi Development Authority on $18 million it borrowed to build the structure.

KiOR, which said it would create 1,000 direct and indirect jobs in exchange for a $75 million loan from the Mississippi Development Authority, shut down in January 2014, laying off its work force of 100 without attaining acceptable levels and quality of fuel derived from wood chips. The state agency filed suit in Hinds County Circuit Court, alleging fraud and conspiracy.

Mississippi Power Co.’s Kemper County  power plant, intended to operate on a first-of-its-kind lignite-coal derived gas, has suspended that effort, under pressure from the Mississippi Public Service Commission, and is currently operating on natural gas.

The concept was that the “syngas” would be cheaper in the long run than natural gas, though the nation is awash in natural gas now, thanks to breakthroughs in hydrofracturing, or fracking, which has lowered the cost of the fossil fuel.

Efforts by Mississippi Power to perfect the technology of the plant were plagued from the beginning, pushing costs from the original $2.9 billion estimate to $7.5 billion, and missing the projected completion date by more than three years.

The Kemper facility has been operating on natural gas and producing electricity since August of 2014, and sporadically on syngas. That was not clear in an earlier version of this story.

The PSC plans to make a ruling on the case by January.

In another green-technology project, Mississippi’s state auditor, Stacy Pickering, demanded in July that troubled electric car maker GreenTech Automotive repay $4.9 million in state and local aid the company received, plus $1.5 million of interest.

Pickering said the company has failed to live up to pledges made in July 2011 to invest $60 million and create 350 jobs in Tunica County.

About Jack Weatherly

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