PortlandPortland, the new hub of solar power in the U.S.?Photo courtesy of Keith SkeltonBack in the 1980s and ’90s, the region surrounding Portland was dubbed the Silicon Forest for the cluster of computer chip companies that had flocked to Oregon to set up shop.

Now those old-growth tech companies are giving way to a new generation of solar startups that are sprouting up around Portland’s green metropolis, sometimes in old semiconductor factories that have been revamped to produce photovoltaic modules.

Germany’s SolarWorld built the United States’ largest solar module plant in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro in 2008, and on Tuesday Silicon Valley company, Solexant, announced it will open its first commercial factory in the area.

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The facility will be Oregon’s first thin-film solar module plant. As the name implies, thin-film solar cells are essentially printed on flexible metal or other materials. Although such technology is less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than standard crystalline silicon cells made by companies like SolarWorld, thin-film solar’s great promise is that solar cells can be made cheaper, which will lower the cost of photovoltaic power.

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Solexant describes itself as a third-generation thin-film solar company. It has revealed few details about its technology other than it has developed a “nanocrystal ink” to make higher efficiency solar cells at a lower cost than its competitors. The technology was first developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California.

Investors clearly think the San Jose startup is on to something. Last month, the company raised a $41.5 million round of funding.

To lure Solexant north, Oregon has offered the company a $25 million loan and an $18.75 million tax credit to help build a factory in Gresham, east of Portland. The plant will produce 100 megawatts’ worth of solar modules a year and employ up to 200 people, according to Solexant. (The company currently operates a two-megawatt pilot production line in San Jose.) In exchange for the tax credit, Solexant has agreed that 97 of the new plant’s 200 jobs will go to county residents.

“We are pleased to welcome Solexant to Oregon, North America’s leading solar manufacturing center,” Gov. Ted Kulongoski said in a statement. “This investment will mean jobs immediately for Oregonians with the promise of more in the future. In addition, this company brings a new technological facet to Oregon’s already booming solar manufacturing base and will help us continue to be a global leader in solar manufacturing.”

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