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Future remains cloudy as Natcore opens solar research center

Solar firm Natcore Technology cut the ribbon on its new R&D center at Eastman Business Park Friday.

The official opening of the million-dollar clean room consolidates Natcore's R&D work in Rochester.

But getting funding for a solar manufacturing line remains a challenge.

Long time coming

Just over a year ago, Natcore CEO Chuck Provini and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) showed up at Kodak's Eastman Business Park and said big things were in store.

"Manufacturing will be done here in Rochester at Kodak," Slaughter said last February.

Bringing solar cell manufacturing to Rochester - and the 2,000 jobs Natcore estimated it would create - depended on landing $8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.

That did not pan out.

Instead, the New Jersey-based solar firm announced last April it was building a research center at Eastman Business Park. On Friday, Slaughter and Provini were back in Rochester to officially cut the ribbon on the facility - which currently employs two former Kodakers.

"First of all, we're excited," Provini said at Friday's ceremony. "We want to manufacture our solar cells here in Kodak."

Funding problems

Provini says Eastman Business Park has the roll-to-roll presses that could pump out solar cells on the cheap. The business park is willing to let Natcore use the mothballed machinery - but scaling up takes money.

"Maybe I can convince Kodak to take $15 million of the $900 million they got, fund this roll-to-roll product and reinvent themselves," Provini said.

Kodak says that's unlikely.

"The odds of Kodak - at least at this point in Chapter 11 - financing it are pretty slim. It's not a core technology for us," said Kodak's Mike Alt, director of Eastman Business Park.

Asked later about Alt's response, Natcore's Provini was not surprised.

"We never stop proceeding with Plan B," Provini said. "We've got four or five plans going all the time."

At the moment, Plan B is trying to convince foreign solar firms to pursue a joint venture in the U.S.

Provini flew in executives from three companies last month to show off Natcore's R&D center.

Natcore says their technology - which is said to increase efficiency - is in demand among foreign firms. But the company insists that it comes with a major string attached: build here. 

"Both the Chinese and the Italians want to fund this roll-to-roll, they just don't want to fund it here," Provini said.

WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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