The Inflation Reduction Act’s domestic manufacturing tax credits have led to many solar panel manufacturing announcements in the last year. Global companies like Canadian Solar, Trina and Longi are starting 5-GW solar panel factories in the United States — gigantic facilities for a country that considered 400-MW sites to be the giants of manufacturing just a few years ago. The federal government’s promise of production subsidies is allowing a manufacturing renaissance on a scale never thought possible.
The U.S. solar panel manufacturing industry will soon grow from a handful of players to several dozen. But the handful of original players don’t want to get lost in the sea of new, sometimes-more-recognizable names entering the country, so they’re also taking advantage of IRA credits to grow. Their hope is that their long-standing commitment to the American market and domestic relationships will cement their legacy status in the accelerating U.S. solar manufacturing industry.
Heliene – Started U.S. manufacturing in 2015
Before the IRA, Canadian manufacturer Heliene operated a 150-MW solar panel factory in northern Minnesota. The company took a big leap in 2021 when it ventured to add 420 MW of capacity on-site without any promise of government assistance. Heliene president Martin Pochtaruk said this expansion was due to the great relationships with the company’s long-term customers.
“The one thing that has characterized us from the very beginning, what has allowed us to not only survive but also grow over the years, is that we work in close collaboration with our clients,” he said. “We manufacture for orders. If a client has a project, we make them orders for that project and supply them just-in-time to the project site. That’s been the difference working with us vs. a 100-times larger supplier.”
But demand has always been bigger than production for the small manufacturer that started in Ontario in 2010. Unable to access working capital, Heliene has been limited to half-a-gigawatt of solar panel manufacturing ability. That all changed with the IRA.
“There is a 7¢/watt [module manufacturing credit] from Treasury eventually. That gives certainty to lenders, and that’s why suddenly our phones are ringing with people offering money, which never happened before,” Pochtaruk said.
Heliene recently raised $170 million, with backing from Orion Infrastructure Capital. The funds will allow the company to expand its existing Canadian and U.S. plants as well as start a new 1.5-GW solar cell and 1-GW panel factory in Minnesota. Heliene always wanted to grow, but the IRA has accelerated its plans.
“I’ve been called many names, but the only one I’m proud of is ‘cautious,’” Pochtaruk said. “We’ve never had one bite that we couldn’t chew. We’re going faster than we ever planned thanks to the IRA.”
Rather than compete with all the new market entrants on capacity, Heliene is promoting its existing domestic relationships. Heliene solar panels today use all domestic subcomponents except for glass, ribbons and silicon cells — and the manufacturer will soon be making cells of its own. The company is continuing to shore up its supply chain while it waits on final domestic content rules from Treasury. Pochtaruk expects this well-established support of American manufacturing to set Heliene apart from other suppliers.
“[Chinese companies] have had the support, financing, rebates and exports of the Chinese government since Day 1, so of course they have the means and the shoulders [on which] to build a multi-gigawatt facility. However, they’re not offering any domestic components. That’s the main difference,” he said. “We’ve always been a bit of a niche supplier, and we sell to those that appreciate value. Working with us brings clarity that they know the [tariffs], the supply, the accessibility. You can drive to our factories and see your module being made. Some companies do value that — if they’re happy, we’re happy.”
Silfab Solar – Started U.S. manufacturing in 2018
Another Canadian manufacturer, Silfab Solar began making solar panels in Ontario in 2010. The company invested in American manufacturing when it bought Washington-based Itek Energy in 2018 and expanded the factory’s 150-MW capacity to 400 MW within two years. In 2021, Silfab opened a second 400-MW factory nearby, securely positioning itself as the second-largest silicon solar panel manufacturer in the United States (behind only Qcells).
Around the same time ideas for the Inflation Reduction Act began brewing, Silfab received an investment from ARC Financial Corp. to make further enhancements at the Washington facilities to “deploy next-generation PV modules” to the North American market. With the global market shifting to larger wafer sizes and advanced technologies, it was going to take some help to get American brands ready to take the next technological leap.
“ARC spent extensive effort evaluating the solar industry for long-term investment opportunities that support and drive the global energy transition,” said Brian Boulanger, CEO of ARC, at the time of the initial investment in Silfab in 2021. “Based on current demand forecasts for PV solar, Silfab is ideally positioned for significant growth and this investment ensures the company is properly capitalized to execute on its plan.”
Silfab began exploring cell manufacturing options in the United States, especially after it developed a solar panel using proprietary cell designs. The IRA helped catapult that decision, along with ARC’s full $125 million investment.
“Silfab has grown more than 40% since ARC’s initial support. We are thankful for our collaborative relationship with ARC and with the Biden Administration and its Inflation Reduction Act, both enabling us to accelerate our U.S. manufacturing strategy,” said Silfab Solar CEO Paolo Maccario in a press release confirming the company’s plan to start a 1-GW solar cell factory in South Carolina.
Just like Heliene, Silfab will start its own solar cell manufacturing outfit to boost the domestic bill of materials for its Made-in-America modules. The company has also taken steps further up the supply chain, agreeing to purchase silicon wafers from NorSun, a Norwegian wafer manufacturer currently shopping sites in America for a new factory.
“Silfab Solar has always focused our design, engineering and manufacturing specifically for the North American solar market, and that, combined with our sustainable growth strategy, has resulted in Silfab becoming one of the three largest solar panel manufacturers in the United States,” said Geoff Atkins, Silfab executive advisor. “Silfab has utilized our 40+ years in the solar industry combined with more than 10 years of manufacturing experience within the United States to develop and grow a competitive infrastructure that is well positioned as a leading solar PV module supplier in the growing U.S. clean energy market.”
Mission Solar Energy – Started U.S. manufacturing in 2014
Mission Solar began making panels at its 200-MW Texas factory in 2014. In an interview with Solar Power World at the time, company reps said the factory was just the right size, as “200 MW in the U.S. is very competitive.” And 200 MW seemed fine for the residentially focused brand that has backing from Korean conglomerate OCI — until IRA credits were announced. Mission Solar is now in the process of building an 800-MW addition to its San Antonio plant, bringing its total U.S. manufacturing to 1 GW.
“By 2035, solar installations are expected to quadruple from current levels. At present, 4% of the electricity fed to American energy grids is generated by solar. The U.S. aims to have 40% of its electricity generated by solar technology by 2035. These are exciting opportunities for us as a company. Additional motivated team members will be needed to help us build a greener future,” said Jae Yang, president and CEO of Mission Solar, in a press release at the time.
Due to Mission’s close relationship with OCI, the American brand will continue to source polysilicon from OCI’s Korean and Malaysian factories, which is then formed into cells in Southeast Asia. Securing non-Chinese products for its panels — which are Buy American Act-compliant and approved for use on federal government-backed projects — is not an issue for Mission Solar. What may be most difficult in this IRA-manufacturing-boom is finding enough skilled workers. Mission needs to double its workforce to run the expanded factory and compete with the other solar giants setting up in Texas.
OCI Solar Power, along with Mission Solar, announced earlier this year a $500,000 partnership with San Antonio colleges and workforce development agencies to train job seekers for roles in solar. The groups are hopeful that Misson’s 10-year dedication to the community will cement its standing in the competitive solar market and allow for further growth opportunities. As the company behind the oldest continuously operating silicon solar panel factory in the United States, Mission Solar expects to thrive in the next decade too.