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How Trump's new solar tariff enabled First Solar to leverage its thin film PV technology over the competition, company plans gigantic new factory in Ohio.

Clean Power

In A Win For The Robots, First Solar To Open New US Factory

How Trump’s new solar tariff enabled First Solar to leverage its thin film PV technology over the competition, company plans gigantic new factory in Ohio.

Now that the dust is settling down from President* Trump’s new PV tariff, it looks like we have a winner: US-based First Solar hopes to open a gigantic new 1.2 gigawatt factory in Ohio to roll out its Series 6 thin film PV technology. “Roll” is the key word here. Thin film PV can be produced through low cost, fully automated, high output roll-to-roll systems. In other words, although the new factory is expected to generate 500 new jobs in Ohio, the heavy lifting will be done by robots.

The new factory is being touted as a  “win” for Trump’s new tariff by some, but take a look behind the curtain and it really looks like the tariff was aimed to promote low cost, thin film technology at the expense of, well, more expensive silicon modules.

500 New Solar Jobs In Ohio, Hopefully

Assuming the new factory gets through all the necessary approvals and permits,  it will expand First Solar’s current $3 billion footprint in Ohio. Here’s the rundown on the company’s existing plant:

The flagship Perrysburg plant is the largest solar manufacturing facility in the United States, working with more than 250 U.S. suppliers and indirectly supporting more than 4,000 jobs across Ohio. First Solar was formed in 1999, and established its first manufacturing facility in Perrysburg. Full-scale commercial production of thin film photovoltaic solar modules began in 2002…

If all goes according to plan, the new plant will be located in nearby Lake Township, with full production expected late next year.

For those of you keeping score at home, that would bring First Solar’s annual US manufacturing capacity up to the 1.8 gigawatt mark. No surprises there, considering that a couple of years ago our sister site noted the potential for 2 gigawatts as early as 2016.

Mike Koralewski, the company’s Senior Vice President of Global Manufacturing, explains why the company is forging ahead despite uncertainty in the US PV market:

Strong demand in the U.S. for advanced solar technology, along with recent changes in U.S. corporate tax policies, have encouraged our decision to grow First Solar’s U.S. production operations. State and local officials and Jobs Ohio have also worked with us to create a business-friendly environment that supported our objectives. These factors, combined with our own economies of scale in high tech manufacturing, make expanding U.S. operations an attractive, win-win opportunity.

Tariff? What Tariff?!

As for the new tariff, that’s an easy one: it doesn’t apply to thin film PV.

In fact, last fall First Solar actively pushed for the new tariff. The company began realizing the payoff shortly after the tariff took effect in February:

In its first guidance since Trump imposed tariffs on solar cells and module imports to the U.S., First Solar Inc. raised sales for this year to as much as $2.65 billion from a December estimate of as much as $2.5 billion, according to a statement Thursday. First Solar’s thin-film panels were exempted from the tariff, so it expects to sell a lot more panels this year.

Do tell! According to Bloomberg, the company expects to take a hit on the latest iteration of federal tax policy but it’s probably safe to assume that will be taken into account as it negotiates a tax package with Ohio officials (weren’t we just saying that state-level action can make or break the US PV industry, regardless of federal policy? Yes, we were).

Thin Film Vs. Silicon PV

So, what’s really going on here? Did Trump really mean to ramp up the budding US thin film industry at the expense of more conventional silicon technology?

Maybe…maybe not. Our friends over at Solar Power World counted more than 50 tariff exemption requests as of the April 16 deadline, so we’ll know more once a final decision is made.

Here’s one hint, though: the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory is a fan of thin film. Here’s a snippet from an NREL article on the topic:

…CdTE solar panels now have the second-highest market adoption after silicon, which remains the dominant technology in the solar industry, and the United States maintains undisputed leadership in this PV technology.

If you already knew that CdTE (cadmium telluride) is the formula for First Solar’s new Series 6 modules, run right out and buy yourself a cigar.

Ditto if you already knew that First Solar built its Perrysville plant as an industry partner of the US Department of Energy. That thin film PV development relationship goes back as far as 2003, by the way.

The company loomed large in the Energy Department’s solar program under then-President Barack Obama, so given Trump’s penchant for reversing Obama-era policies (looking at you, Scott Pruitt) it’s possible that the Commander-in-Chief could suddenly realize that the tariff does little more than pick “energy winners and losers” in the solar industry, and come after First Solar with a new tariff proposal.

Or, he could approve some or all of the 50+ tariff exemption requests, effectively nullifying First Solar’s advantage.

We’ll see about that. In the meantime, there is much more to the First Solar story and you can learn more by taking a stroll through the company archive on CleanTechnica.

Follow me on Twitter.

*As of this writing.

Image (screenshot): First Solar’s “high tech” thin film manufacturing system.


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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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