Factory taking shape: 1,000 workers building $2 billion Wacker plant

photo The Wacker plant in Charleston, TN.

BY THE NUMBERS* 3.8 - million cubic yards of dirt moved on the Wacker plant project* 17,000 - tons of steel used to build the plant* 900,000 - linear feet of pipe usedSource: Wacker

CHARLESTON, Tenn. - Construction of Wacker's $2 billion polysilicon production plant now has about 1,000 builders on site daily as the factory's planned startup is a little more than a year away.

Konrad Bachhuber, overseeing the raising of one of Tennessee's biggest-ever construction projects, said the plant's building workforce is to double to about 2,000 by the end of this year and into early 2015.

"We're pushing the project forward," he said about the factory's current construction schedule. "It's pretty exciting to us."

The first chunks of polysilicon are to come out of the plant in the second half of next year, the plant official said in a recent interview at the sprawling site off Lauderdale Memorial Highway.

Wacker communications manager Amanda Plecas said the polysilicon, which is used in solar panels to harness the power of the sun, will be shipped to manufacturers domestically and internationally.

"We will ship our product all over the world, including to China," she said.

Bachhuber said all 30 or so buildings which will make up the plant are essentially erected. Workers are turning their focus to the massive job of installing the piping and the mechanical and electrical operations to link the structures.

"They'll be doing the final installation mechanically and electrically," Bachhuber said. "The final step is to connect the different buildings."

In addition, he said, the last pair of huge container vessels were put atop one of the tallest buildings on the construction site, marking a key milestone in the plant's construction.

"We've made really fantastic progress," Bachhuber said.

The German company began work in April 2011 on the factory that is slated to employ 650 people when production begins.

But in 2012, the company announced that production would be delayed by about 18 months and it slowed the pace of construction. Wacker blamed changing solar market conditions and over-capacity for polysilicon for the delay.

Gary Farlow, the Cleveland Bradley County Chamber of Commerce chief, said the company has about $1 billion invested in the plant so far. Construction has slowed to "a normal pace," he said, adding that Wacker never stopped building even after announcing the production delay.

"Wacker is taking a long-term view of the industry...and global trends," Farlow said.

He said that's the difference between the Charleston project and another polysilicon plant in Clarksville, Tenn., where Hemlock Semiconductor built a $1.2 billion factory earlier this decade but never started production.

Last November, Hemlock notified nearly 300 employees who had been put on administrative leave earlier in the year that their jobs were eliminated.

Jarrod Erpelding, a Hemlock spokesman, said that less than 50 employees are on the Clarksville location to maintain it and keep the plant in good condition.

"No production at this time," he said in an email. "Future plans dependent on market conditions."

Bachhuber said construction at the Wacker site is "on target and on track" to meet the new schedule. Initial ramp up of the plant will take several months in mid-2015, he said.

Work is underway to tie into a Tennessee Valley Authority 5900-kilovolt substation to tap into the power grid, the plant official said. Already on site is all the polysilicon producing equipment to be installed in coming months except for the smallest parts.

"This is a huge logistical task," said Bachhuber. He pointed out an expanse of different colored piping sitting staged and awaiting installation.

Wacker has hired 180 employees of the 650 it will need when production starts next year, Bachhuber said.

"The backbone of the future is on board," he said about those employees who are doing about 30 different tasks for the company.

Some of the rest of the hiring is slated for later this year, though most will be done in 2015, Bachhuber said.

"Many of the new workers will go to Germany for on-the-job training," he said. "It depends on the specific task."

However, still pending in federal court in Chattanooga are lawsuits against Wacker filed last year by about a dozen people who claim the company made false or deceptive representations by failing to put them to work after they had trained for the slots.

Court papers said they went through extensive training at the Wacker Institute at Chattanooga State Community College, but were left without work after Wacker delayed the opening date of the plant by at least 18 months. They are seeking damages from the polysilicon maker for lost wages and training costs.

Wacker has asked the lawsuits should be dismissed. The company said it did not withdraw, rescind, or terminate conditional offers of employment. It said in a statement last year that it was "unable to begin employment of the students" due to the delayed opening.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-631.

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