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After loss of its only solar manufacturer, N.J. prepares to welcome a new one

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When MX Solar USA, the U.S. subsidiary of an Italian solar panel manufacturer, ceased production at its Somerset County plant last year, it left a gash in the state's bleeding industry — until another Italian solar manufacturing firm recently started reversing the hemorrhaging by opening a warehouse in Parsippany.

After growing its warehouse footprint over the past 30 years throughout the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia, Milan-based solar energy company SIEL SpA collaborated with UCLA nearly three years ago to explore opportunities in Canada and the United States for a North American production plant. University researchers recommended locations along both coasts, but Glauco Pensini, CEO of SIEL's new U.S. operations, said the Northeast offered more direct transportation connections to Milan, so he narrowed the firm's site selection process down to New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Though he met with each state's respective foreign direct investment and business recruitment arms — including Choose New Jersey and the Business Action Center's Office of International Business Development and Protocol — Pensini said, "I have chosen New Jersey because it's more or less the same as Pennsylvania and New York, but the cost of transportation is better and it's easier to move goods in and out of the state."

To take full advantage of the state's transportation sector, Pensini hired Helene Strumeyer, the director of Newmark Associates' international division in the Cedar Knolls section of Hanover, to tour available properties between Fairview and Edison, though he ultimately selected a European-style 28,000-square-foot flex warehouse space in Parsippany as a result of its close proximity to Newark Liberty International Airport, which offers direct flights to Milan.

While SIEL's New Jersey plant currently employs three people to prepare for the start of production next month, Pensini said he hopes to add 35 highly skilled employees in three years, and he wants state incentives to speed that pace.

"Up to now, we have done everything by ourselves — in terms of hiring people and buying equipment, so that we can start production very soon — but if I can hire more people, the production will be accelerated," Pensini said, noting the company predominantly manufactures and assembles solar panel inverters. "I would like to see if there are incentives that I could use to hire more employees and buy more equipment to boost my system and grow the sector."

Since SIEL's European offices partner on research projects with Italian schools, Pensini said one of his business strategies is to form a public-private partnership between the company's Parsippany office and nearby colleges like the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which established a solar energy research center with China-based Apollo Solar Energy Inc. in 2010 to find methods to improve applications of thin-film solar modules.

"In our history, we've always collaborated with schools of technology and we've always been happy doing it, because we're helping the students and we're also getting the most up-to-date information on how the technology is growing," Pensini said. "I'm open to do that, and I would be glad to do that."

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