Number of US solar manufacturing plants to “skyrocket”

In the U.S., at least 11 new manufacturing plants are expected to be built by 2012; a big jump from the 27 solar factories in the country at the beginning of 2009, according to Shyam Mehta, a senior analyst at Greentech Media.

That number only includes plants that already have scored financing, so the real number could be larger. And there are several indications the trend will "skyrocket" beyond 2012. For one thing, take U.S. federal manufacturing tax credits, which materialized as part of the stimulus bill. So far, 61 new or upgraded manufacturing facilities – expected to cost a total of USD$3.8 billion – have been awarded U.S. federal manufacturing tax credits worth USD$1.56 billion, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

SunPower Corp’s vice president Julie Blunden also believes the market is strong. “The U.S. market is one of the fastest-growing markets in the world today, and if you look at the total available market in the long run, it’s just a very large power market that’s got a lot of room to grow,” she stated.

Mr. Metha additionally expects U.S. cell capacity to reach four GWs by the end of 2012, up from 786 megawatts (MWs) in 2008, and panel capacity to total 3.88 GWs, up from 875 MWs in 2008. That 2012 capacity would then, he said, enable the production of 2.79 GWs of cells and 2.69 GWs of panels per year.

In addition, project announcements have been accelerating, said Mr. Mehta. Indeed, more plants were announced in the first half of last year than in the previous three years combined, according to a report he wrote.

Canada also is expecting to see solar manufacturing grow in the next few years. Canadian Solar, which currently manufactures crystalline ingots, wafers, cells and panels in China, is now building its first North American facility in Ontario, Canada. The 200 MW panel factory is expected to begin operations – with a smaller initial capacity – this year. And U.S. microinverter company Enphase Energy, based in Petaluma, California, in March announced it would build a 100 MW production line in Ontario.

It is not, however, just North American companies that are moving manufacturing to the continent. European and Asian companies also are building factories there. China’s Suntech Power Holdings, for example, unveiled plans in January to construct a solar-panel manufacturing plant in Goodyear, Arizona, about 30 kilometers west of Phoenix. The factory, expected to begin with 30 MWs of initial capacity, could grow to more than 120 MWs, according to the company. Suntech, the world’s largest crystalline-silicon solar panel maker, said it’s the first Chinese cleantech company to bring manufacturing to the U.S.

Meanwhile, Germany’s SolarWorld said in May that it’s nearly finished expanding its Oregon solar cell factory, which has 150 MWs of capacity at the beginning of last year, to a whopping 500 MWs. And Athens, Greece-based Helio- Sphera, an Oerlikon micromorph customer which launched production at its first factory last September, a 60 MW thin film panel facility in Tripolis, Greece, in December announced it would begin building a 160 MW facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this year. The company, previously called Next Solar, expects to reach full production at its Pennsylvania plant in 2012.

Read the full article in pv magazine’s June edition, “To the New World”, by Jennifer Kho, pp. 18 – 24.