New firm hopes to hire 1,000

A California-based solar company plans to invest more than $300 million in a Blythewood manufacturing facility that could hire 1,000 people by 2014.

AQT Solar, founded in 2007, makes solar cells, the part of a solar panel that converts sunlight into electricity. The company has 40 employees and opened its first manufacturing facility in Sunnyvale, Calif., in August. James Smith, a Columbia attorney and member of the S.C. House of Representatives, represents the company in South Carolina.

The Blythewood facility will be at the Carolina Pines development, sandwiched between Farrow Road and I-77 about 15 miles north of Columbia. AQT plans to hire 60 people by the end of the year and begin manufacturing the cells by 2012. By 2014 the company plans to be producing enough solar cells to generate 1 gigawatt of electricity per year, or the equivalent of what’s produced by a small nuclear power plant, according to AQT CEO Michael Bartholomeusz.

“We’ve got a group from California that has selected South Carolina as their home. That’s something we really need to celebrate,” state Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor said. “I do believe the selection of Columbia will put the city and the state in a more positive light when it comes to alternative energy.”

State and local incentives helped sweeten the deal. Richland County will tax the property at 4 percent of its assessed value for the next 20 years. Manufacturers typically are assessed for property taxes at 10.5 percent. Richland County Councilman Greg Pearce said the tax rate, which is the lowest the county can charge, is because of the promise of a big investment and a large pool of high-paying jobs.

“It’s a good package,” said Pearce, chairman of the county’s economic development committee. “This is an investment that comes along once every 10 years or so.”

At the state level, incentives are tied to the number of jobs the company creates. Details of those incentives, including the total value, will be released at a later date.

Most solar cells are made of silicon. But AQT makes its solar cells from copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, or CIGS – a much cheaper, but less efficient, energy-producing material. AQT’s business model is built around lowering the cost of solar panels to make the technology more widely available.

So far, it’s working, according to Bartholomeusz. He says the company has $100 million worth of purchase orders, with another $150 million under negotiation.

“Everything that we make for the next two years is already sold out,” he said. “The market reception has been fantastic.”

Bartholomeusz says he plans to hire engineers and specialized tech workers, in addition to accountants, sales reps, marketing professionals and quality control specialists.

“It will definitely be on the higher end of the pay scale,” he said.

Bartholomeusz said what sold him on South Carolina was the state’s transportation network, including interstate highways and the Port in Charleston, and the state’s colleges and universities.

“South Carolina, within a very small proximity, has an extremely intense collection of the whole gamut of institutions of learning and training,” he said. “Every state I went to, I talked to different college presidents and administrators. South Carolina really distinguished itself.”

The AQT announcement is the second large job announcement in the Midlands in the past two months, with planning 1,200 jobs at a site south of Cayce. Both were major job announcements – just outside Columbia’s city limits. Mayor Steve Benjamin said he’s not concerned about that.

“The primary role is to make sure we create jobs,” said Benjamin, who visited AQT officials in California along with County Council members to convince them to locate in Richland County. “And of course you want to keep your eyes on the tax base and create water and sewer customers."