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Anonymous CASM Member Goes Public in Solar Case

Helios Solar Works, a small solar panel manufacturer based in Milwaukee, Wisc., said Thursday that it is one of the seven companies that worked to file the original trade complaint against the price of solar panels coming in from China.

Until this week, SolarWorld was the lone public face for the Coalition for Affordable Solar Manufacturing (CASM). The Department of Commerce is expected to announce its preliminary countervailing duty determination as early as March 19 just as the solar industry arrives at PV America-West, a three-day conference and exhibition in San Jose, Calif., that runs March 19-21. The result could impose stiff tariffs on panels coming in from China, and such a move would put severe financial pressure on the rest of the American solar industry that has often benefited from the low-cost panels. It would also make American-made modules more cost-competitive.

The remaining five companies in the seven-member coalition remain anonymous, and there is no requirement that their names ever be made public. However Helios Solar Works decided the timing was right, even as the tariff decision looms and as the rhetoric with the competing Coalition for American Solar Energy (CASE) intensifies.

Helios is a relatively new company to the solar industry, having launched in 2009 before opening up its first production line in February of 2011. In an interview Thursday afternoon, Steve Ostrenga, chief executive officer of Helios Solar Works, said his company really started seeing prices drop during the second quarter of 2011. That drop, he said, sapped much of the momentum out of the company. Helios was running at two shifts and heading toward a third when the bottom fell out, and now the company is down to one shift. As far as employees go, they went from a high of about 50 — and hopes of increasing to at least 75 — down to their current 30 or so employees.

In the midst of this price drop, Ostrenga said he was contacted by the law firm representing CASM. From there, it was an internal decision of whether to sign on to the complaint. Once they decided it was in their best interest to do so, they also determined they would not go public -- at least not right away. While anonymity is usually granted because of a perceived threat of retaliation, Helios held back for different reasons.

“We just do not have the resources [to have gone public],” said Ostrenga. “Our core competency is in making what we believe is the best module in the world. We just felt we’d get a lot of inquiries from the press and other institutions, and we didn’t want our company and our managers focused on those things.”

Since then, they’ve changed their thinking and decided to publicly join SolarWorld.

“Solar World has been getting a lot of pressure, saying it’s just them and that they stand alone,” said Ostrenga. “No. We’re a module manufacturer. We compete in the market place. We make a good module. We’re here in Milwaukee. We employ people.”

Ostrenga said he’s been keenly aware of implications of trade disputes even outside the solar industry, so he knew the solar case had the potential to become a divisive issue.

“We’re positioned here in Wisconsin where 23 percent of our labor base is tied to manufacturing,” he said. “The paper industry is going through a similar situation with China. We understood there’s going to be geopolitical ramifications.”

Image: Man walking into sun via Shutterstock

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