First Solar to build a new solar panel factory in Ohio

WASHINGTON – The largest US-owned solar panel maker will announce plans Wednesday to invest $ 680 million in a new Ohio factory, in one of the biggest bets on home solar manufacturing since China began dominating the industry ago. one of each.

First Solar INC.,

FSLR 2.23%

based in Tempe, Arizona, said it plans to begin construction after the necessary permits and local incentives have been obtained and aims to open the plant in early 2023.

The factory, which would be the company’s third in Ohio, is expected to initially produce enough solar panels to produce 3 gigawatts of power a year, or enough to power about 570,000 homes.

Combined, the three plants by 2025 would produce panels that could generate 6 gigawatts of power a year, or just over half of all the solar panels the company estimates will be produced annually in the U.S. By then, he said. CEO of the company, Mark Widmar.

Mr. Widmar said the investment reflects the growth of the US market and what he sees as a commitment by the bipartisan government to encourage domestic manufacturing of alternative energy.

First Solar is the largest US-owned solar panel manufacturer.


Photo:

Dustin Franz for Akacceleratorfund

The pandemic heightened concern about “overdependence on any country” for imports in industries deemed essential, Widmar said.

President Biden has said he wants to make the US power grid carbon-free by 2035 and will seek to give a boost to the domestic industry through federal government purchases of American-made equipment.

“The Administration is committed to its ambitious goals to ‘Buy American Products’ and to creating American-made products, including for solar technologies,” said a spokeswoman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Chinese companies have dominated the solar market since around 2011, eliminating American, European and Asian competitors that had a head start but lacked the large-scale government support and funding provided by local governments in Beijing and China.

Fierce Chinese competition drove prices for solar panels down and made solar energy competitive with natural gas. Some economists say it has been a boon for consumers.

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“It seems like it’s the solar power manufacturers versus the people,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University.

First Solar, one of the few US solar firms able to stay afloat, has specialized in building panels for large-scale installations in the desert. Chinese and other companies also built panels for the residential market.

Some environmental groups have opposed the mega-projects, saying they harm the ecology of the desert.

If planned properly, projects can help preserve desert animal life, Widmar said. “Wildlife emerges around them,” he said. “They can be a safe haven.”

First Solar posted losses in five of the last 10 years, but has been profitable since 2020.

First Solar expects its Ohio plants, including this one in Walbridge, to produce panels that could generate 6 gigawatts of power annually by 2025.


Photo:

Dustin Franz for Akacceleratorfund

The new highly automated factory is expected to employ 500 people. Currently, First Solar employs about 1,600 people in the US and 5,000 worldwide.

Still, First Solar would remain a relatively small player in the expanding US market, where imports have an 85% share, according to energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

After the construction of First Solar’s new factory, the company would continue to import 40% of its panels from its factories in Vietnam and Malaysia.

Widmar says the company wants to continue expanding US production, helping it save on freight costs and strengthen the company’s position as an alternative to Chinese imports.

“We are the only ones who resisted the attack of the Chinese,” said Widmar. “Many people doubt that we are holding out; that’s the challenge. “

The company relies on continued support from the United States through tax breaks and possibly renewing tariffs on imported Chinese panels, as well as growing domestic demand.

Solar generation has grown to about 4.3% of the nation’s electricity supply from 0.1% in 2010, according to Scott Sklar, an energy expert at George Washington University.

Shares of First Solar rose 1.27% Tuesday to $ 75.96. The shares are down 25% this year.

Investors have invested more money than ever in renewables like solar and wind. WSJ looks at how the pandemic, lower energy costs, and global politics have fueled the rally and whether it can last. (Video of 12/31/20)

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Write to Bob Davis at [email protected]

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