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First Person: Rick Doornbos, Hemlock Semiconductor Group

Apr/May 09
You have just selected Clarksville, Tennessee, as the site for a new manufacturing plant? How did you decide on that location?
Doornbos: The process took more than a year to complete. We looked at nearly 50 different sites around the world, on almost every continent, searching for the lowest overall cost structure in terms of energy, the overall cost of doing business, an available skilled work force, and access to infrastructure, such as roads, utilities, sewer, and water. We were happy to choose Clarksville because of its access to low-cost energy through the Tennessee Valley Authority. It was also, as you might say, shovel-ready, with access to the necessary infrastructure. And we received excellent support from local and state officials, who provided an attractive incentive package to help us locate to that region.  

What will you manufacture at the plant?
Doornbos: We'll be manufacturing a product called polycrystalline silicon, which is one of the purest man-made materials and a key raw material used in the production of solar cells and semiconductor devices. Everything from cell phones to flat panel televisions to the electronics in automobiles and personal computers relies on polysilicon. 

How important is access to energy for this process?  
Doornbos: Access to low-cost energy is very important because it's an energy-intensive process to make polycrystalline silicon. However, once the product is used to make a solar panel, the actual solar panel produces anywhere from 8 to 15 times the amount of energy used to manufacture it. So it's a very positive net gain over the lifetime of the panel, even though there is a fair amount of energy used to produce it in the first place.

Many think that manufacturing is almost nonexistent in the U.S. today? Is that true or not?
Doornbos: Because of the strong need for cost-competitiveness, there certainly have been a lot of manufacturing operations in labor-intensive industries that have moved overseas. But I would say that Hemlock Semiconductor is a great example of how the opportunities for strong manufacturing operations still exist in the U.S. In the last five years alone, we have announced $4 billion in investment that will create more than 1,500 jobs in Hemlock, Michigan, and Clarksville, Tennessee. It's really a new era of manufacturing for this highly specialized product that goes into semiconductors and solar cells. We're hoping that as the United States grows its solar energy market, there will be even greater opportunity for more U.S. manufacturing - from the making of solar panels and related components.

What are some of the challenges you face as a manufacturing facility today?
Doornbos: With such a high growth rate in the solar industry, there are many challenges that come in expanding manufacturing operations. One is making sure that we have access to the type of work force that we need to run our operations, whether its engineers, technicians, or skilled trades. And we need access to the specialized parts, equipment, and fabrication needed to construct our new manufacturing plants. The magnitude of managing mega-project investments of over $1 billion is also a very complex and challenging activity. We have to make sure that the project stays on time, on budget, and delivers the capacity and design criteria that it was planned for.  

What kind of characteristics do you look for in a labor pool?
Doornbos: The key characteristics are having the right types of technical skills or experience. But, in addition to that, Hemlock Semiconductor Group has seven core values that we operate our business around: integrity, quality, our employees, sustainability, our customers, technology, and safety. These are the foundational values for our company, and we look for these types of values in our employees as well. We want to make sure that our employees fit well into our culture and will help us to be successful over the long term.

Are any programs being put into place to train new employees for the Clarksville plant?
Doornbos: We are partnering with Austin Peay State University to develop a one-year certificate and a two-year associate's degree program in chemical engineering technology. This particular program will give students the opportunity to train for careers in the chemical industries, not just for Hemlock Semiconductor, but also for any chemical operation that might be in the region. Graduating from this program doesn't guarantee employment at Hemlock Semiconductor; however, completion of this program will be one of the top considerations that we will use when we review and screen potential candidates.

How important is "green" development as well as environmental impact for the Hemlock Semiconductor Group?
Doornbos: Sustainability is one of the core values of our company, and so we work every day to make our products and our processes more sustainable. It's the foundation of our business. Polycrystalline silicon is used to produce the solar panels that provide clean renewable energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce the need for fossil fuels. In other applications in the semiconductor industry, a lot of the products are used to improve the efficiency of anything from automobiles - with all their electronics and emission controls - to the next generation of lighting. Did you know that the silicon diodes that go into LED lighting enable them to use as little as 10 percent of the energy of standard light bulbs? So all of our products are really helping to enable the green movement and sustainable energy options throughout the world. We are thrilled to be part of the rapidly growing solar energy industry, and we believe that the U.S. is well poised to be the next big growth market for solar.

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