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Wacker Project Making History, Prepares for Production Startup

This article was originally published on TimesFreePress.com.


Wacker continues to flex its financial muscle at its sprawling plant construction site that the company terms the largest single private manufacturing project ever in Tennessee.

"It's the third largest construction site in North America," said George Graham, production manager for Wacker.

The German-based Wacker is investing $2.4 billion at its Charleston, Tenn., plant, which later this year is scheduled to begin production of polysilicon for the growing solar power industry. The investment is more than double the original $1 billion estimate when the project was unveiled five years ago.

The project cost has risen as company officials made decisions to boost capacity of the factory, said Wacker spokeswoman Amanda Plecas.

"Renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics will play an increasingly important role in the world's energy producing sectors," she said. "Accordingly, Wacker believes in the continued long term growth of polysilicon demand."

Production capacity at the plant will climb from 18,000 tons to 20,000 tons of polysilicon annually, Plecas said. That move, along with the effects of refining its construction schedule, brought the plant cost higher, she said.

In 2012, Wacker tapped the brakes on plant construction, citing too much production capacity for polysilicon in the marketplace. The company said then it would start production in 2015, about 18 months later than originally planned.

Wacker, one of the world's largest players in the polysilicon industry, currently has hired more than 300 of the 650 employees it plans to bring on at the plant.

Last week, the company opened up new apprenticeship programs at Chattanooga State Community College from which it expects to find more employees.

"We feel these are great career paths," Teal Gaylord, Wacker's manager of training and development, told about 30 apprentice hopefuls.

She said Wacker is looking to fill spots as chemical operators as well as in electrical and mechanical maintenance. The apprenticeships are part of a two-year program at Chattanooga State, Gaylord said.

"This adds work experience to a two-year curriculum," she said.

A.J. Hilliard, 45, of Cleveland, Tenn., has been at the same job for the past nine years. When Wacker offered the chance to apprentice at the plant, he saw an opportunity to make more money.

"I'm a certified machinist," he said, adding he'd like to get into equipment maintenance at Wacker.

Josh Danielson, 18, of Chattanooga, said the apprenticeship seems like a good way to launch his work career.

"The electrical program caught my interest," he said.

Tim McGhee, dean of Chattanooga State's engineering technology division, said the Wacker Institute was set up at the college as well as a pilot plant to allow students to get hands-on experience.

"We've got a real, no-joke chemical facility," he said.

The Wacker-CSCC partnership is uncommon, he said.

"In higher education, you don't see it that often where you can earn and learn at the same time," McGhee said.

According to Wacker, the apprenticeships pay $12 an hour for the first year and $13 after the second year. While students take classes at Chattanooga State during the week, they'll also be on the job at the Wacker site.

"It will give you a skill set you can use for the rest of your life," Gaylord said, whether that be at Wacker or working for another company. "We need to get you into the pipeline quickly. A career at Wacker begins at this program."

Plecas said the company is in the commissioning phase of construction.

"We're working with the electrical and mechanical installation and getting those in place," she said.

Earlier this year, Wacker estimated it had 3,000 people helping to build the plant on its 550-acre site.

Wacker parent Wacker Chemi said first quarter worldwide sales were up 15 percent to $1.49 billion. The main reason for the growth was higher volumes than in the previous year, especially for solar silicon and semiconductor wafers.

The Munich, Germany-based company raised its sales forecast for full-year 2015 slightly.

Wacker's polysilicon division posted total sales of $325.3 million in the first quarter, up almost 11 percent, according to the company.

For all of 2015, both polysilicon volumes and sales are projected to rise, the company said, as officials expect the photovoltaic market to continue on its growth trajectory.

But, the report said, overcapacity persists along the entire supply chain and further reduction in polysilicon production costs remains a key objective.

In regards to the Charleston polysilicon plant, construction remained on schedule in the first quarter, the company said. The project accounted for more than 70 percent of the Wacker group's total investment spending during the quarter, the company said.