Smelters, Silicon, and Solar Panels


HHiTest Sand of Alberta, Canada would send high quality quartz ore from their mine to:

the proposed PACWest Silicon smelter in Newport, WA.  PAC West would use low cost electrical energy to smelt the quartz ore into silicon metal and would sell it to: 

Manufacturers like REC Silicon (a Norwegian company) of Moses Lake and Hemlock Semiconductor (? of Ohio) who produce polysilicon crystals they are currently selling to: 

Manufacturers of solar panels and semiconductors.  (worldwide?)


Dear Group,

On December 27 a tiny article appeared in the Spokesman entitled “‘Suspicious device’ found near Moses Lake manufacturing facility.” The manufacturing facility is REC Silicon, an enormous, brightly lit plant you see from I-90 just east of Moses Lake about a mile north of the highway. The bomb in the car apparently wasn’t intended for REC Silicon, but that was not the part of the article I found interesting. From Chad Sokol’s Spokesman article:

REC Silicon, one of the largest employers in Grant County, was spun off from a larger Norwegian corporation, REC Group, which makes solar panels.

REC Silicon, which also has a manufacturing facility in Butte, said earlier this year its business was damaged by the United States’ trade war with China and retaliatory Chinese tariffs on polysilicon materials.

In July, the company laid off about 40 percent of its Moses Lake workforce, impacting about 100 employees, according to news outlet iFiber One. At the time, the company warned that it could be forced to close the Moses Lake plant if the trade dispute was not alleviated.

Apparently, McMorris Rodgers’ “positive disruptor”’s tariff war with China isn’t just disrupting agricultural markets for our region, but is also costing the region jobs in the silicon industry related to manufacturing solar panels. Loss of 100 jobs and possible closure of a major plant with the potential loss of 150 more is a big deal in Grant County. In Grant County Moses Lake (pop. 20,366) is the biggest town and agriculture is already under siege. 

One thing leads to another: REC Silicon in Moses Lake supposedly would be a major buyer of the silicon produced by the proposed PACWest silicon smelter in Newport WA. From the PACWest website:

The majority of the silicon metal produced by PacWest Silicon will be converted to a high-purity form of silicon by polysilicon producers, such as REC Silicon in Moses Lake.

How much will decreased demand from the Moses Lake REC Silicon plant due to the Trump tariff war dampen the enthusiasm for PACWest Silicon (part of HiTestSand of Edmonton, Alberta) to build a silicon smelter in Newport, Washington? Trucking raw material (quartz rock) from Canada to Newport was supposed to make sense due to proximity to inexpensive hydropower, but proximity to and demand for much of its output of silicon metal must also factor in.

Well, here’s where things get a bit murky. Companies producing polysilicon (mostly for solar panels and semiconductors) in the United States have been struggling since 2011. That year the U.S. government imposed tariffs on Chinese solar panels, arguing the Chinese were engaging in dumping product on the U.S. market. (“Dumping” suggests selling goods below the cost of producing them [temporarily] in order to undercut competitors.)  The Chinese retaliated with tariffs on polysilicon from the U.S. That counter-tariff produced collateral damage to companies producing polysilicon in the U.S. like the REC Silicon plant in Moses Lake and Hemlock back east. Those two are generally recognized (in a web search) as the major producers of polysilicon crystal in the U.S. Since then the Chinese have worked hard to ramp up their own polysilicon production.

It is the recent Trump tariff war, though, that is precipitating the job loss and potential closure of the Moses Lake REC Silicon plant on account of even greater retaliatory tariffs against U.S. polysilicon, a tariff war that seems bound up in Trump’s wish to “bring back coal.” So where does PACWest plan to sell its pure silicon metal for use in the solar panels and semiconductors if the U.S. polysilicon industry is in the toilet thanks to tariffs? Will the Newport plant produce silicon from trucked in Canadian quartz and then export the product back to Canada and, through Canada, to the rest of the world, e.g. China (and avoid the tariffs)? I asked this of a contact in PACWest. He reassured me I had overlooked “other larger polysilicon producers in the U.S.” whose names he could not reveal due to non-disclosure agreements. Furthermore, “You will see in Q1 or Q2 [first and second quarters of 2019] several very large expansion announcements in the South East US that will increase US Poly demand.” I presume by this he means expansion of companies manufacturing solar panels, since solar panel production is now the main destination of polysilicon.

Interesting how all this interlocks and how much of it happens outside the consciousness of the 99% of the population, while jobs in Moses Lake are lost, jobs are dangled as bait in Newport, and multinational companies shuffle money in their endless pursuit of profit. I wonder if McMorris Rodgers has all this in mind as she praises her “positive disruptor,” the instigator of the trade war? 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. Silicon is an element (Si). In its highly purified crystalline form (polycrystalline silicon, also called polysilicon or poly-Si) silicon is used in solar cells and electronics.  Silicone is polymer, a synthetic compound with a repeating sequence of silicon, oxygen, carbon, and sometimes other elements. Silicone compounds are used in sealants (like caulking compound), adhesives, lubricants, medicine, breast implants, cooking utensils, and thermal and electrical insulation. The output from the Moses Lake REC Silicon plant looks to be mostly destined for solar cells and other electronics. In contrast the processed silicon metal from the proposed Newport plant could go to electronics (e.g. via REC Silicon) but might also find its way into more prosaic things like silicone polymer products. (PACWest indicates its metal will be so pure it will mostly go to solar panels and semi-conductors “and a small amount to the Aluminum market.”)