Solar cell plant lauded by Gov. Perdue

NORCROSS - The sun was hidden behind rain clouds Thursday, but it was the spotlight of a new plant that could not only boost the local economy but help solve a global issue.

A bright spot in Georgia's cloudy economy, Gov. Sonny Perdue and other dignitaries cut a ribbon to open the South's first solar cell manufacturing plant, located on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Norcross.

"Folks, this is a big deal," Perdue said of the new company, Suniva, which will add 100 green jobs to the community by the end of 2009. "This is not just a commercial venture. This has the capacity to solve one of mankind's greatest issues, which is sustainable energy without pollution."

Perdue said he can remember when electricity was brought to rural Georgia, so he shared a common bond with Ajeet Rohatgi, a former Georgia Tech professor who is one of the leading researchers in solar technology.

Rohatgi, Suniva's chief technology officer, said he has a dream of making solar energy affordable and spreading it around the globe, since he saw in his native India the impact electricity can have on people's quality of life.

"Suniva is a dream come true for me," he said. "There are still 2 billion people in the world with little or no access to electricity."

On solar energy, he added, "It's free, unlimited and not localized to any place in the world. It is my hope to tap into this enormous resource, and convert it to clean electricity."

The Norcross plant produced its first solar cell Oct. 23. Soon, officials hope to ramp up to a production each day of 20,000 cells, which are more efficient than cells currently being produced at other plants.

The first manufacturing line can produce 32 megawatts annually, and officials have already ordered equipment for a second line, capable of producing twice that amount.

According to CEO John Baumstark, the company has customers in Europe and Asia, and he hopes to announce his first American customer soon.

Officials said the company puts Georgia in a good position for a possible surge in green energy policies under President-elect Barack Obama.