Major construction activity is nearly complete on Itek Energy’s new 48,000-square-foot solar panel manufacturing plant on Bellingham’s downtown waterfront. Itek is set to move into their new facility and begin manufacturing solar panels by the end of the month.
Itek has experienced strong demand for their efficient, high-quality solar panels since starting production in the Irongate neighborhood in 2011. Last year, Itek purchased property from the Port of Bellingham as part of a $6 million project to convert a former pulp and tissue warehouse into a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility. The new solar plant will add approximately 30 jobs to Itek’s existing operations, moving up to 125 jobs to Bellingham’s downtown core and significantly strengthening the local economy.
“Itek Energy is a tremendous local success story,” said Port Commission President Dan Robbins. “The Port sold property to Itek to stimulate job growth and it’s wonderful to see all of the construction jobs this project is creating as well as new manufacturing opportunities for Whatcom County residents.”
While changes to the exterior of the former pulp and tissue warehouse have been highly visible with new windows, siding and a roof; it is the hum of new, state-of-the-art equipment inside which is most exciting to the owner of the local company. “We have installed the most advanced solar panel manufacturing equipment in the world,” said Itek Founder and CEO, John Flanagan. “We now have the capacity to produce up to 200 megawatts of highly efficient panels per year. Solar panel manufacturing has never been done to this scale in the State of Washington.”
When Itek’s new factory is up and running later this month, raw materials will be delivered by truck to the north side of the building, assembled into solar panels and then shipped out as finished product from the south side of the building. Some of the most sophisticated machinery in the world will allow Itek to produce a large volume of high quality panels in a relatively small footprint. For example, Itek’s new stringer machine will solder-connect two solar cells in 1.71 seconds—the fastest system in the world.
Increasing production capacity is necessary to meet escalating demand in Washington, Oregon and California, as well as emerging east coast and international markets. In Washington, legislation extending solar incentives to homeowners and businesses for eight years was signed into law this summer. “The U.S. solar market had it biggest year ever in 2016, and is projected to nearly triple in size over the next five years’” said Flanagan.
Itek will keep their Irongate facility to manufacture custom products with unique sizes and applications. “We have many customers interested in fabricating innovative solar products and technologies, and our Irongate facility will help us service this demand,” said Flanagan.
Itek’s new manufacturing plant is located within the Port’s 237-acre downtown waterfront redevelopment area. Construction on the first new roads and park in the downtown waterfront are scheduled to begin next month, and the Port’s private development partner recently announced plans to build four large scale projects within the next several years.
“We are excited to be part of the downtown waterfront redevelopment effort,” said Flanagan. “It is an amazing place to live, work and play. Bellingham’s central waterfront has some unique clean energy resources, including our new facility, which could eventually form a clean-tech innovation hub and create a significant number of jobs related to manufacturing, research and education.”
Clean energy resources on the waterfront include the planned installation of district utility systems, waste heat from Puget Sound Energy’s Encogen station which could be reused to help power a district heating system, and a surplus 48-inch water main extending from Lake Whatcom to the waterfront which could be used to generate hydropower. Western Washington University’s Institute for Energy Studies is ideally situated to provide education in the area of clean and renewable energy and energy efficiency.
"I'm excited to have clean energy businesses grow on our waterfront" said Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville. "An expansion of these types of manufacturing jobs is exactly what we'd like to see in our light industrial zones."
Clean technology is rapidly developing into an important part of the national economy with over 2.7 million workers in the U.S. Nearly 260,000 Americans work in solar – more than double the number in 2012 – at more than 9,000 companies in every state.