An international manufacturer of solar energy equipment plans to turn a plot of desert real estate into its North American hub for production, giving New Mexico officials hope that the state can become a player in the renewable energy industry. The new plant will produce both photovoltaic panels and receivers for solar thermal power plants, officials with Schott AG of Mainz, Germany, said at a groundbreaking ceremony Monday. Initial plans call for an 18,580-square-meter facility that will employ about 350 people. Gov. Bill Richardson, a former energy secretary, called the venture historic. He said efforts by the state and local governments to offer incentives to attract hi-tech companies to New Mexico had paid off with Schott's decision to build a plant in Albuquerque. "For them to come to New Mexico... this is historic," Richardson said Monday before he and a crew of Schott officials and other state leaders turned dirt at the site with silver shovels. "It's also the future because what we need in this country is a new energy policy that relies on renewable energy." Earth work has already begun at the site, and company officials expect production to begin in spring 2009. As demand for renewable energy sources grows, the company said plans include expanding the plant to 74,322 sq. m. and employing as many as 1,500. Schott's initial investment will be $100 million. That's expected to grow to $500m. over the next few years. "As the market grows, we're going to continue to grow the facility," said Gerald Fine, president and chief executive of Schott North America. Schott estimates long-term economic development stemming from the plant could reach more than $1 billion. Fine said the project would be "revolutionary" not only for the company, but for New Mexico and the future of clean energy. "For us this is more than just another production facility making another industrial product," he said. "It's part of our vision, our legacy and a declaration that we're committed to solar energy, to hi-tech manufacturing and to the future of this country." Schott is a leading manufacturer of solar technology equipment, but it also makes a wide range of other products, ranging from glass used in oven doors, fiber optics and syringes. The company has operations in 41 countries, employs about 17,000 people and has global sales of about $3b. The Albuquerque plant will be located at Mesa Del Sol, a commercial and residential development south of Albuquerque's international airport. The plant will make solar panels, which convert solar energy into electricity, and receivers used in utility-scale concentrated solar thermal plants. Mirrors focus the sun's rays onto the receivers, which warm fluid that goes to a heat exchanger to produce steam for turbines to generate electricity. Mark Finocchario, president and CEO of Schott Solar Inc., said in the first 12 months of operation, the plant would produce more than 64 megawatts of solar modules, as well as receivers for power plants that have been producing electricity for customers in California and Nevada. He said Arizona would soon be added to that list. While Schott's roots in the solar industry date back to the 1970s, Fine said business had started to accelerate in recent years. "We're absolutely convinced that during the next years we're also going to have to reduce our dependency on foreign oil and gas," he said. "And this means that we are going to have to continue to develop and invest in renewable energies, including solar energy."