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Jobs added in Chehalis: Cardinal Glass expands to meet demand from solar industry

By Jim Szymanski
The Olympian

Economically hard-hit Lewis County is getting a boost in new jobs thanks to the solar energy industry. The Cardinal Glass plant in Chehalis will expand and more than double its payroll because the company has taken on tempering solar panels as a new business line. The process strengthens the panels, making them more durable.

Jobs added in Chehalis: Cardinal Glass expands to meet demand from solar industry

Deborah Hutton moved into her newly built home in February. The house was outfitted with solar panels and radiant heat in the floors.(Steven M. Herppich/The Olympian)

Economically hard-hit Lewis County is getting a boost in new jobs thanks to the solar energy industry.

The Cardinal Glass plant in Chehalis will expand and more than double its payroll because the company has taken on tempering solar panels as a new business line. The process strengthens the panels, making them more durable.

The Chehalis plant will add 30,000 square feet to the 100,000-square-foot plant, and the payroll of 35 employees will expand to 85 by this summer, plant manager Mark Reidy said.

“It’s exciting,” Reidy said. “We were operating at two shifts a day, but now we’re running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Reidy declined to identify Cardinal’s new customer, but said the solar panels will be used by residential and commercial customers worldwide.

The effect on Lewis County’s economy is important, because its 9.7 percent unemployment rate in February far outstrips Thurston County’s 5.2 percent rate.

Lewis County was hard-hit in 2006 when TransAlta closed its Centralia coal mine, putting about 600 employees out of work.

Then, in December, rainstorms devastated much of the county with floods, further weakening the economy when businesses closed either temporarily or permanently.

Minnesota-based Cardinal also operates plants in Winlock and Tumwater.

“Cardinal’s expansion is a big deal for us,” Bill Lotto, executive director of the Lewis County Economic Development Council, said. “It puts their Lewis County employment at over 300 workers. They are a major employer in our market.”

The expansion also is welcome news to Vernadel Peterson, president and chief executive of the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce.

“We love getting any jobs we can right here,” Peterson said.

They’re coming at a time when state financial incentives to solar customers have caused a boom in the relatively small industry in this state. Solar customers can get credits on power bills after generating excess electricity that utilities buy.

Solar demand

Since the state financial incentives went into effect in 2005, the number of solar customers connected to power grids in the state is expanding.

In the past two years, the number of solar customers tied to power companies statewide increased from about 90 to nearly 700, said Mike Nelson, director of Washington State University’s Northwest Solar Center.

“We have a good healthy demand for solar power right now,” Nelson said.

Two such customers are Dave and Deborah Hutton, who moved into a new solar home in Lacey in February.

The couple is satisfied to be consuming “clean,” environmentally friendly power while reducing their monthly bills through energy credits they receive from Puget Sound Energy.

“What we’re doing makes sense, and that’s spelled with a ‘c’ and an ‘s,’ ” Dave Hutton said.

The Huttons’ solar system added about $18,000 to the $362,000 cost of their home, but they expect their utility savings will pay off the cost of the equipment within five years.

David and Karen Purtee added solar panels to their 36-year-old Olympia home four years ago.

David Purtee said the panels generate up to one-third of the electricity the couple uses. On average, the solar system has reduced the household power bill by about 25 percent, he said.

The Purtees’ solar system has changed their energy use habits as well as saving them money.

“We’re more conscious of the need to turn off the lights now,” he said. “It’s really made us more conservation minded.”

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