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First solar cell to build new solar panel factory in Ohio



WASHINGTON – The largest U.S.-owned solar cell maker is expected to announce plans Wednesday to invest $ 680 million in a new plant in Ohio in one of the biggest bets on domestic solar production since China began dominating the industry a decade ago.

First solar cell Inc.,

FSLR 2.29%

based in Tempe, Ariz., said it plans to start construction after necessary permits and local incentives are secured and aims to open the facility in early 2023.

The plant near Toledo, which would be the company’s third in Ohio, is initially expected to produce enough solar panels to produce 3 gigawatts annually or enough to power about 570,000 homes.

Together, by 2025, the three plants would produce panels capable of generating 6 gigawatts annually, or just over half of all solar panels the company estimates will be produced annually in the United States, said the company̵

7;s CEO, Mark Widmar. .

Sir. Widmar said the investment reflected growth in the U.S. market and what he saw as a two-party government’s commitment to encourage domestic alternative energy production.

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


Photo:

Dustin Franz for The Wall Street Journal

The pandemic heightened concerns over “excessive confidence in a single country” for imports into industries considered important, Widmar said.

President Biden has said he wants to make the U.S. power grid carbon-free by 2035 and will try to give domestic industry a boost through federal government purchases of equipment made in America.

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

The Department of Energy said the investment is “the perfect execution of President Biden’s strategy of building domestic production and supply chains for critical industries. “

Chinese companies have dominated the solar market since around 2011 and have knocked out U.S., European and Asian competitors who had a head start but lacked the large state aid and funding provided by Beijing and Chinese local governments.

The fierce Chinese competition pushed solar panel prices 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 to be solar makers in relation to the people,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University.

First Solar, one of the few U.S. solar companies capable of staying afloat, specializes in building panels for large installations in the desert. Chinese companies and others also built panels for the housing market.

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

Properly planned, the projects can help preserve desert wildlife, Widmar said. “Wildlife arises around them,” he said. “They can be a safe haven.”

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

First Solar expects that its Ohio plant, including this one in Walbridge, will produce panels that can generate 6 gigawatts of electricity annually by 2025.


Photo:

Dustin Franz for The Wall Street Journal

The highly automated new factory is expected to employ 500 people. First Solar currently employs about 1,600 people in the United States and 5,000 globally.

Nevertheless, First Solar will remain a relatively small player in the growing US market, where imports have a 85% share, according to energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

Following the construction of the new First Solar plant, the company would still import 40% of its panels from its plants in Vietnam and Malaysia.

Sir. Widmar said the company will continue to expand U.S. production, helping it save on shipping costs and strengthen the company’s status as an alternative to Chinese imports.

“We are the only ones who stand up to the Chinese attack,” he said. Widmar. “Many doubt that we will endure; that is the challenge. ”

The company is banking on continued US support through tax cuts and possibly renewal of tariffs on imported Chinese panels as well as rising domestic demand.

Solar production has grown to approx. 4.3% of the country’s electricity supply from 0.1% in 2010, according to Scott Sklar, an energy expert from George Washington University.

First Solar shares rose 1.3% Tuesday morning to $ 75.96. Shares have fallen by approx. 25% this year.

Investors have poured more money than ever into renewable energy such as solar and wind. WSJ looks at how the pandemic, lower energy costs and global politics have driven the rally – and whether it can last. (Video from 31/12/20)

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Write to Bob Davis at bob.davis@wsj.com

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