The Inflation Reduction Act’s incentives to jump-start U.S. solar product manufacturing have already yielded significant groundbreakings and expansion announcements for solar panel makers. Qcells, First Solar and JA Solar are just a few of the module manufacturers planning to open new facilities in the United States, even before the Dept. of the Treasury releases more specific guidance on how to qualify for the incentives.
But domestic manufacturing appears to be a harder sell for the inverter market — tax incentives or not. Only 10 of the 32 most popular U.S. power electronics brands do any part of manufacturing stateside, and companies are still hesitant to commit to any U.S. manufacturing, even with new tax credits.
The Inflation Reduction Act sets aside credits for five different categories of inverters:
- Central inverter (>1 MWAC capacity): 0.25¢/WAC
- Utility inverter (>125 kWAC, <1 MWAC): 1.5¢/WAC
- Commercial inverter (>20 kWAC, <125 kWAC): 2¢/WAC
- Residential inverter (<20 kWAC): 6.5¢/WAC
- Microinverter (<650 WAC and connects with one solar module): 11¢/WAC
Some manufacturers are hesitant to make any moves into domestic manufacturing because they don’t fit into the narrow definitions in the act. The IRA itself doesn’t specify what constitutes a U.S.-made inverter — such as how much of the product must be actually manufactured in the United States to receive credits. Many inverter parts, like circuit boards, are not made domestically and must be sourced from overseas.
The IRA definitions of different inverter types pose some issues too. Microinverters can receive the largest incentive per-watt in the inverter category, but they must be both less than 650 WAC and connect with just one solar module.
As written, the microinverter parameters really only apply to Enphase. APsystems makes microinverters that connect with either two or four modules, so the company has been working to convince Treasury to expand the definition.
“We have hired a firm along with Yotta Energy to work with Congress on the interpretation of the IRA to include other microinverter manufacturers outside of Enphase, like us, NEP, Hoymiles, Generac and many others. Our view is that if the intent of the new Act is to encourage manufacturers to produce in the U.S., it should not benefit only one microinverter provider,” said Jason Higginson, senior director of marketing for APsystems.
Enphase’s clear qualifications for the credits have made the company one of the first to announce new U.S. manufacturing plans.
Enphase uses contract manufacturers around the world to serve different markets, with the Mexican location of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) Flex making all of its North American microinverters up to now. With the IRA incentives, Enphase has announced it will start manufacturing in the U.S. with one contract manufacturer in Q2 of 2023, followed by two others in the second half of 2023, with the goal of producing 4.8 to 7.2 GWAC of U.S. microinverters per year.
Using contract manufacturers to build its products is a strategy that lets Enphase scale much faster than building an entire factory from the ground up.
“I think there are pluses and minuses to different models, but the idea is that we can work with multiple [OEMs] to allow us flexibility and options and the ability to negotiate terms of those deals, and we can also diversify regionally,” said Andy Newbold, senior director of corporate communications at Enphase.
Contract manufacturing is a way to keep the huge expense of running a factory off a business’s balance sheet, but it also means less control over the day-to-day operations and quality. But Enphase still feels confident in its approach due to careful partner selection and collaboration when starting a new line.
“We have people who are representing Enphase that are in these factories and standing up these various lines, and working with our contract manufacturing partners to make sure every step of the process has quality and reliability in mind,” Newbold said. “Part of our selection process with contract manufacturers is working with folks who are dedicated to that as well.”
Only a few inverter manufacturers have spent the capital to set up in-house manufacturing stateside. EPC Power makes dual-purpose central inverters for the storage and solar markets. The robust functionality of the inverters makes them more expensive and thus more practical for storage projects that can maximize features like grid-forming capabilities.
The company has always made inverters in the United States at its headquarters in Poway, California, and opened a new factory in Greenville, South Carolina, in late 2022. Despite the high cost of domestic manufacturing, EPC Power has had success in its ability to charge more for a premium, Made-in-America product. All of EPC’s engineering and support is based in the United States, with most workers coming from other U.S. power electronics companies.
“The U.S. is a really hard market, and it will benefit from having everything local. [We’ve] just never deviated from that, so we never got into the race to the bottom on cost. It was more about justifying the value,” said Adam Kabulski, VP of sales and marketing at EPC Power.
But EPC has had its challenges in domestic manufacturing. Finding qualified power electronics engineers was tough when opening a second plant.
“You’re fighting for this highly trained, highly technical talent that’s already pretty limited,” Kabulski said. “It’s not a real common field. There’s only a handful of schools that have this as part of their curriculum.”
Despite hiring pains, EPC remains committed to in-house manufacturing for the quality assurance.
“It is really nice to own your own technology, your own manufacturing, your own quality. There are good contract manufacturers. There are many industries that use contract manufacturers very well. But having control over your own supply chain, your own manufacturing, gives you more control over your business,” he said.
EPC Power is at an advantage with pre-established U.S. manufacturing, so ITC incentives would just be a bonus. Kabulski thinks overseas companies trying to bring manufacturing to the United States for the first time will face some skepticism when they price their new products to cover the costs of a domestic plant.
“For someone that’s normally a low-cost provider to come to the U.S. and all of a sudden convince people that they’re a premium product, that’s a hard sell. At least we’ve always approached it as a high-feature, high-technical solution at a higher price point. We haven’t had to change anything culturally about the company,” he said. “It’s exciting that we have the tailwinds of the IRA, but I will not be the least bit surprised if no one else enters the U.S., just because the U.S. market changes so quickly, and that’s a big investment. And there’s a big world outside of the U.S. that you can also serve.
“I think it’s best for the entire industry to have more options, but we’re excited to already not have to worry too much about having to start an extra plant,” Kabulski continued.
Yaskawa Solectria Solar and CE+T America make solar inverters domestically, too. Both companies have said they’ll be increasing their output to capture new incentives but have not committed to specifics yet.
Arlington, Washington, inverter manufacturer MidNite Solar is hoping the new incentives will throw the company a life preserver. MidNite’s hybrid inverter line is designed and assembled stateside, but domestic manufacturing hasn’t been easy for the company.
“We’re at a huge disadvantage price-wise because we’re paying a 25% duty on all parts. Ninety percent of the parts come from China. Then we’ve got all the rules and regulations of an American company, and we’ve got the American wages to hire people these days,” said Robin Gudgel, owner of MidNite Solar.
Gudgel said he’s kept operations in the United States because he’s stubborn. In the past, he hasn’t found the American-made aspect to be a big factor in customer choice, but that could change with the new IRA incentives.
“I wish I knew how to take advantage of it. We would certainly like that 6.5¢/WAC, because we will be shipping 200 inverters a month, or 7,000 W, so that’s $400,” he said. “That will help make us healthy. Right now, we’re struggling.”
Uncertainty is the only constant in the domestic inverter manufacturing landscape at the moment. But even when Treasury illuminates more details, it’s still not clear if it will be enough to bring impactful investments to the American inverter space.