Update: Seventy layoffs at GE PrimeStar after Aurora plant put on hold

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Update: Over the next few months, dozens of General Electric employees in Colorado will face layoffs as part of the company's controversial plan to put a much-anticipated solar manufacturing plant on hold for at least eighteen months. Since news broke last week about GE's plans to delay an Aurora facility, the company has refused to disclose any specific information on the layoffs -- but state documents show that by the end of August, roughly seventy employees will be let go.

Yesterday, the Colorado Department of Labor sent Westword a copy of a GE document called a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN; it's essentially a mandatory letter informing the state of layoffs. Companies must file these notices when the employer is laying off more than fifty workers, and if those totals constitute at least one-third of the workforce, says Department of Labor spokesman Bill Thoennes.

A company must also file this notice if it has 100 or more full-time employees and is closing down an entire facility or work site affecting at least fifty workers.

In this case, GE isn't shutting down any facility, but neither is it pushing forward any time soon with plans for a major Aurora plant. For that reason, seventy employees based in Arvada will be laid off on August 31st. In the meantime, GE will in theory work to improve the specific solar panel technology it hopes to eventually manufacture.

Brian Murphy, the founder of PrimeStar, a Colorado-based startup that was ultimately bought by GE, isn't confident the Aurora plant will ever be built as planned, or that its products can successfully compete in the global market.

The GE letter describes the layoffs as "a reduction in force" and not a facility closure. When we spoke with Murphy earlier this week, he told us he'd heard that around seventy employees had been laid off -- a number that constitutes roughly half of the PrimeStar workforce in Colorado, he believes. He has been in contact with some workers, many of whom he hired years prior, and said he would try to help them find work elsewhere.

Here's the letter.

Primestar Solar WARN letter

Page down to read our previous coverage.. Original post, 6:12 a.m. July 5: Last week, as news was breaking that Colorado-based manufacturer Abound Solar had filed for bankruptcy, a solar branch of General Electric in Aurora was informing its local employees that about half of them would be laid off. Westword learned of these major layoffs -- which could affect more than sixty employees -- late Tuesday, from a former employee of the company.

This is a major blow for Aurora, which is where the company called GE PrimeStar was planning on opening a large solar-panel manufacturing plant; Governor John Hickenlooper touted the deal at this year's State of the State address in January.

PrimeStar's corporate headquarters are located in Arvada, and the company does some additional manufacturing in Michigan. According to our source, current employees are saying that every employee at the Michigan facility -- between fifteen and twenty workers -- will be laid off, and around sixty in Colorado will be losing jobs.

"The same day Abound announced their bankruptcy, PrimeStar sat the employees down and said they were shutting down the Michigan...operation and that half of the people in Colorado are going to be let go," the former employee says.

PrimeStar was a local startup that developed its solar energy technology in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden. GE bought the company in 2011 and announced in October of last year that it planned to open a plant in Aurora.

This latest twist in the story is certainly a big shift from the celebration of Colorado's renewable energy industry and Aurora's anticipated economic boom. The Denver Post, for example, ran a story with the headline "PrimeStar solar-panel plant is latest trophy for Aurora."

Our source says that it seems GE will be focusing on research and development and not manufacturing. Employees were told that the plan to open the Aurora plant have been "delayed at best," he notes. A GE spokeswoman told us in an e-mail yesterday that "the delay is at least 18 months."

When we reported on Abound's bankruptcy last week, after the company had already struggled with layoffs earlier in the year, we asked experts whether they thought this was a bad sign for renewable energy in Colorado -- and the folks we talked to expressed concerns about competition from China in the solar industry. But they said they were confident that Colorado would remain a central place for this kind of research and manufacturing, given that it has a good climate for solar energy and local support from the National Renewable Energy Lab -- owned by the Department of Energy.

In fact, one of our experts said he was confident in Colorado because GE had a stake in stake in the state and is big enough to fight against intense competition from overseas.

Now the layoffs raise questions about the state of renewable energy manufacturing in not just Colorado, but across the United States. At the time that GE's Aurora plant was announced, the DOE -- which has supplied funding for PrimeStar -- applauded the news, pointing out that the plant would produce enough solar panels to provide electricity to 80,000 homes and would also create 355 jobs in Colorado over a three- to five-year period.

Now, though, it looks like PrimeStar will actually be losing jobs, not bringing new ones. And that casts a shadow on this state's new energy hopes.

A spokeswoman from GE sent us an e-mail yesterday afternoon, saying that pricing in the industry -- a nearly 50% drop in global module prices due to overcapacity and declining incentives -- has been challenging, but that the company is still committed to solar. The statement from Lindsay Theile says the company has more than 100 patents in solar technology and is pushing forward with a project in Illinois. She said the company is not disclosing the number of layoffs. Part of the statement read:

[W]e are putting the build-out of our Aurora, Colorado plant on pause and focusing our efforts to develop the next generation of solar module technology. This technology will reach a far higher efficiency level and more competitive cost position, and will require modifications to the plant design currently underway. In conjunction, we have communicated to our employees that we are sizing our solar team accordingly. This decision has been made to keep GE's cost goals in line, in order to continue our competitiveness in the solar industry.

More from our Environment archive: "Denver bicylists pedaling to work in greater numbers, city trying to keep up"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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