Although the United States was listed as the world’s fifth-most attractive country for module manufacturing by GTM Research’s Global PV Manufacturing Attractiveness Index (PVMAX), there aren’t many purely made-in-the-USA panels available. Almost all companies have some type of Chinese or European influence.
Suniva, a 2008 U.S. startup, is the larger exception. The company announced last year it would increase its Georgia plant manufacturing capacity from 150 MW to 400 MW in 2016 and reach its full 200-MW capacity at its Michigan plant. SolarCity has also thrown itself into the made-in-the-USA mix after acquiring Silevo in 2014 and building a 1-GW plant in Buffalo, New York, to bring the Chinese technology state-side. The facility should be completed in 2017 (see photos of construction here).
There are other USA-made success stories, although with more international influence. German-headquartered SolarWorld has been the largest U.S. solar manufacturer for 40 years, with a 530-MW capacity manufacturing facility in Oregon. Thin-film CdTe powerhouse First Solar has manufacturing lines in the United States and also much larger ones in Southeast Asia. Having manufacturing sites spaced across the globe is common for larger U.S. companies, SunPower included.
But what about U.S.-based companies without the capability for huge production lines across the planet? How do they compete with established Chinese names?
According to numbers from REN 21 Global Status Report 2015, Asia produced 87% of worldwide PV modules in 2014 (including 64% from China alone). The United States only manufactured 2% of the global supply. It could seem daunting today to start a U.S.-based panel manufacturing company when international companies clearly have dominance and recognition, but some local manufacturers have taken on the challenge.
SolarTech Universal – Riviera Beach, Florida
SolarTech Universal is a Florida manufacturer of 285-W monocrystalline and 300-W bi-facial modules. The company opened its 80-MW facility in November 2015 and is currently shipping panels. Nathan Rosenstein, marketing director, said SolarTech’s niche in the market is producing solar panels with a busbar-less, SmartWire Technology-infused design.
“We wanted to provide a premium panel to customers and clients that’s better in every way compared to other panels around the world,” Rosenstein said. “Quantum Series solar modules allow for a highly efficient panel thanks to SmartWire Technology. SmartWire allows for lower operating temperatures while creating greater power due to its 18-cell strings rather than the typical busbar design seen on most panels today. It also mitigates and helps with microcracks, so even if you were to obtain a crack on the cell, our panel would continue to allow the flow of electricity to go through the entire line of cells in that row.”
As to why the company, which licenses its technology from Swiss-based Meyer Burger, chose to locate in Southern Florida, Rosenstein said producing a U.S.-made, premium-quality panel was important for integrators looking to take advantage of various credits and rebates across the country. Also, the location is great for entering emerging markets.
“The facility here is close to a wide variety of different ports so it gives us really easy access for shipping, especially for South America and the Caribbean,” Rosenstein said. “We’re also in works for a second facility in Puerto Rico, developing a larger 72-cell panel.”
SolarTech has future plans to become vertically integrated, so it believes it has a lasting spot in the U.S. solar industry.
Colored Solar – Ventura, California
Colored Solar also believes its niche product establishes the company’s home in the market. The company began manufacturing UL-certified colored solar panels (forest green and tile red are popular choices) in California in 2012 and finds more than enough business within the state. CEO Mike Mrozek said many building designers and homeowner associations like working with Colored Solar to provide building owners with camouflaged solar rooftop options.
“Our primary focus is not on costs and [being] cost competitive with others in the industry, because that’s just a fight that we will never win,” Mrozek said. “They’re making gigawatts and we’re doing kilowatts. We decided to go after a market that needs some aesthetics, that offers customers a choice.”
Colored Solar is able to match almost any color out there, but right now it’s focusing on where the demand is—tile red roofs reign supreme in California. Mrozek said adding color to solar panels is not inherently difficult, but he’s still not worried about bigger-named panel manufacturers stealing Colored Solar’s industry identity.
“Right now, there’s less than 1% penetration in solar in general,” he said. “If maybe in a few years somebody might come out with a colored solar competitive product, then that’s great. There’s plenty of market share out there.”
Mission Solar Energy – San Antonio, Texas
Mission Solar Energy is attempting to steal a large share of the made-in-the-United-States market from manufacturing giant Suniva. The Texas-based manufacturer is one of the only newbies to the market that can compete with Suniva’s scale. Mission Solar’s 200-MW capacity plant began producing n-type monocrystalline panels in September 2014.
“200 MW in the U.S. is very competitive. There’s not many manufacturers in the U.S. that even have 100 MW of capacity,” said Sam Martens, senior manager of planning and production control. “In terms of globally, yes, we’re smaller than these Chinese players, but we definitely look to be competing on the same playing field with Jinko or Trina, not only in the U.S. but in global markets.”
Mission Solar was able to start production in a big way because of its parent company and partnering relationships.It’s part of the OCI family of companies, headed by South Korean chemical conglomerate OCI Company. OCI entered the U.S. solar market first as a project developer (OCI Solar Power) in San Antonio contracting huge solar farms for local utility CPS Energy. The Korean company had long produced polysilicon and sold it to solar panel manufacturers across the world when it decided to take its product downstream. Mission Solar was formed to produce modules using OCI’s materials for OCI Solar Power projects.
“We start with raw silicon wafers, we produce the wafers into solar cells, and then we turn the solar cells into completed solar modules all at our facility here in San Antonio,” Martens said. “For Mission Solar, our main focus has been supplying to our customer, OCI Solar Power, for these solar farms in Texas.”
While the large majority of its modules have gone to OCI Solar Power projects in the San Antonio area, Mission Solar has no exclusivity to OCI. It can and is finding other developers to work with.
“Having a strong partner like OCI Solar Power and a strong pipeline built out with CPS Energy was a big boost to get us on our feet,” Martens said. “It would have been challenging to come in and build a 200-MW facility [without them].”
Mission Solar has faith that demand for U.S.-manufactured panels will continue to creep up, along with the need for North American raw materials.
“Obviously the supply chain surrounding solar manufacturing in the United States is still relatively weak. We have the same challenges that are faced by companies that have been doing this for a while,” Martens said. “A lot of the raw materials still come from overseas, but we are starting to see some interest in setting up some parts of the solar food chain in North America.”