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The first solar company to build a new solar panel factory in Ohio

WASHINGTON – The largest US solar panel maker will announce plans to invest $ 680 million in a new plant in Ohio, one of the largest pledges for domestic solar production since China began dominating the industry a decade ago.

First solar Inc.,

FSLR 2.29%

based in Tempe, Arizona, said it plans to begin construction once the necessary permits and local incentives are in place and aims to open the plant in early 2023.

The plant near Toledo, 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 will produce panels by 2025 that could generate 6 gigawatts of power per year, or just over half of all solar panels the company estimates will be produced annually in the United States by then, the CEO said. the company Mark Widmar.

Mr Widmar said the investment reflected the growth of the US market and what he saw as a two-party commitment by the government to promote local alternative energy production.

First Solar is the largest American manufacturer of solar panels.


Dustin Franz for The Wall Street Journal

The pandemic has heightened concerns about “over-reliance on any country” for imports into industries that are considered essential, Mr Widmar said.

President Biden has said he wants to make the U.S. power grid carbon-free by 2035 and will seek to boost local industry by purchasing U.S.-made equipment from the U.S. government.

“The administration is committed to its ambitious Buy American goals and the creation of American-made products, including solar technology,” a White House Office of Management and Budget spokesman said.

The energy ministry said the investment was “the perfect embodiment of President Biden’s strategy to build domestic production chains and supply chains for critical industries.” “

Chinese companies have dominated the solar market since about 2011, knocking out American, European and Asian competitors who had the advantage but lacked the large-scale state support and funding provided by Beijing and Chinese local governments.

Fierce Chinese competition has pushed up solar panel prices and made solar energy competitive with natural gas. Some economists say it’s a boon for consumers.


What is your perspective for the US solar industry? Join the conversation below.

“They seem to be the producers of solar energy to humans,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University.

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

Some environmental groups have objected to the megaprojects, saying they harm the desert ecology.

Properly planned, the projects can help save life in desert animals, Mr Widmar said. “Wildlife appears around them,” he said. “They can be a safe haven.”

First Solar has lost five of the last 10 years, but has been gaining since 2020.

First Solar expects Ohio power plants, including Walbridge, to produce panels that could generate 6 gigawatts of power per year by 2025.


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 worldwide.

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

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

Mr Widmar said the company wanted to continue to expand production in the US, which helped it save on transport costs and strengthen the company’s position as an alternative to Chinese imports.

“We are the only ones who oppose the Chinese attacks,” Mr Widmar said. “A lot of people doubt we can stand it; this is the challenge. “

The company relies on continued US support through tax breaks and a possible renewal of tariffs on imported Chinese panels, as well as growing domestic demand.

Solar production rose to about 4.3 percent of the country’s electricity supply from 0.1 percent in 2010, according to Scott Sklar, an energy expert at George Washington University.

Shares of First Solar rose 1.3 percent on Tuesday morning to $ 75.96. Shares have fallen about 25% this year.

Investors are investing more money than ever in renewable energies such as solar and wind. The WSJ looks at how the pandemic, lower energy costs and global policy have sparked the rally – and whether it can continue. (Video from 31.12.20)

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

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