Spire

(NSDQ: SPIR) has found a new customer and investor in a South Korean leather maker that aspires to be a solar panel maker.

Spire said Tuesday that it had inked two contracts to sell factory equipment that would give Uni-Chem the capacity to produce 60 megawatts of solar cells and 50 megawatts of solar panels per year.

Spire is also in negotiations with Uni-Chem to sell a 51 percent stake in a solar project development company called Spire Solar Systems, which was formed this summer. These deals, including the two equipment contracts, are valued at about $60 million, Spire said.

The Bedford, Mass.-based Spire disclosed its dealings with Uni-Chem after stories surfaced over the weekend that Uni-Chem was planning a big foray into the solar market in the United States.

Uni-Chem makes leather for car companies such as Hyundai and Kia, as well as leather for furniture companies and clothing accessory companies, such as Coach. Listed on the Korea Exchange, Uni-Chem posted $74.6 million in sales last year and expects to generate $81 million this year, according to the company's website.

Uni-Chem Chairman Lee Ho-chan told the Associated Press that his company had signed a memorandum of understanding with Hynix to buy Hynix's defunct memory chip factory in Eugene Oregon for $50 million.

South Korea-based Hynix closed the 10-year-old factory last year and laid off more than 1,000 employees when the memory chip business wasn't faring well.

Lee said he wants to turn the Hynix site into a solar cell factory.

The equipment Uni-Chem has purchased might not head to Oregon, however. Spire said Uni-Chem is interested in installing the equipment at a Spire Semiconductor facility in Hudson, N.H., but the lease is still under negotiation.

Uni-Chem does plan to start running the equipment in the second half of 2010, Spire said.

Uni-Chem also has agreed to set up a U.S. subsidiary before finalizing its purchase of the 51 percent stake in Spire Solar Systems. Spire formed the project development company after its joint venture with Taiwan-based Gloria Solar was dissolved.

The United States is a key solar market thanks to the myriad of federal, state and local incentives to promote solar energy. The federal government is offering grants and tax credits to businesses and homeowners who install solar energy systems.

SunEdison, for example, recently received $992,000 for building a 443-kilowatt system from a federal program that provides cash grants to offset 30 percent of the price of a system.

These policies have prompted Asian and European companies to consider setting up factories in the United States partly to ensure that they could stamp their products as "made in America," a label that would be crucial for selling goods to public agencies and even consumers.