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First Solar Commits To $1 Billion Solar Panel Factory In Alabama

First Solar will build a new solar panel factory in Alabama, thanks in no small part by policies and funding from the federal government.

First Solar announced this week that it has selected a site in northern Alabama as the location for its fourth American photovoltaic solar module manufacturing facility. The new factory is part of a previously announced investment in scaling First Solar’s American manufacturing footprint to over 10 gigawatts (GW) DC by 2025, and is expected to create over 700 new direct jobs in the state.

The planned factory in Lawrence County’s Mallard Fox Industrial Park represents an investment of approximately $1.1 billion. It is expected to be commissioned by 2025 and is expected to produce 3.5 GWdc of panels annually. The vertically integrated facility will join three factories in Ohio, including one that is scheduled to come online in the first half of 2023, to form part of First Solar’s expanded domestic manufacturing footprint.

“First Solar is a world class manufacturer, and its solar modules are poised to play an increasingly important role in US energy self sufficiency,” said Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. “I’m thrilled to see the company’s growth project headed to Lawrence County because I know it will create good jobs and have a major economic impact on this rural region.”

The new facility is expected to advance a strategic push by the company to scale its US manufacturing base in support of the effort to decarbonize the American economy and achieve self sufficiency in reliable and competitive renewable energy technologies.

“The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 has firmly placed America on the path to a sustainable energy future,” said Mark Widmar, CEO of First Solar. “This facility, along with its sister factories in Ohio, will form part of the industrial foundation that helps ensure this transition is powered by American innovation and ingenuity.”

He added, “Our commitment to responsible solar includes operating facilities that are among the cleanest, safest, and most diverse in the country, and we’re pleased to bring our model of responsible solar manufacturing to Alabama. We are proud of the role that this facility will play in creating stable, good paying manufacturing jobs in the state, demonstrating the economic and social value that clean energy can deliver.”

This latest investment is expected to bring the company’s total investment in American manufacturing to over $4 billion. The new facility is believed to be the first of its scale in the United States and is expected to accelerate American leadership in the development and production of advanced thin film photovoltaics.

Designed and developed at its research and development centers in California and Ohio, First Solar’s advanced thin film PV modules set industry benchmarks for quality, durability, reliability, design, and environmental performance, the company says.

Widmar added, “As it works to develop the next generation of solar technologies, First Solar represents the kind of innovative, technology-forward company that can help power Alabama’s economy into the future,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “This investment supports sustainability and advances America’s energy security — and it’s great news for Alabama.”

First Solar expects its new investments in Alabama and Ohio, now estimated at $1.3 billion, will add at least 850 new manufacturing and over 100 new R&D jobs, taking its total number of direct jobs in the US to over 3,000 people in four states by 2025, which is believed to make it the largest employer in the American solar manufacturing sector. By 2025, First Solar is also expected to support an estimated 15,000 indirect and induced jobs as a result of its ongoing and future manufacturing operations.

The Takeaway

This is big news, apparently. Every morning at 6 am, my friends at Google send me a news alert about the latest news in the world of solar power. Today there were 10 stories featured in the alert, 8 of them related to the First Solar factory in Alabama, including one from the Washington Post.

America is frantically trying to find ways to blunt the commanding lead the Chinese have in solar panel manufacturing, electric cars, and battery manufacturing. Policies have consequences. The Obama administration backed a solar panel manufacturing startup known as Solyndra, an investment that blew up in spectacular fashion.

Reactionaries had a field day with that, using it as an example of how government can’t do anything right and a lesson in why the private sector should be allowed to take the lead in all things. America promptly went to sleep after that, secure in the knowledge that any manufacturing that needed to be done could be done cheaper in China. China, in turn, said thank you very much, got the bit between its teeth, and got to work crafting a plan to dominate in all areas that touch on renewable energy and zero emissions transportation.

[Note: First Solar has been working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for years to design and improve its solar panel manufacturing process. Without help from government supported research facilities, this current announcement would be impossible. Something to consider when beating the free enterprise drum.]

Now America has awoken from its nearly decade long torpor and is shocked — SHOCKED — to find China controls most, if not all, of the manufacturing and technology that is essential to meeting the challenge of a warming planet. Thanks to Joe Biden and his team, the wheel has turned and America is gearing up to protect its own vital national interests.

The reactionaries apparently forgot to factor in the national interest when they ran their free enterprise modeling. As it turn out, freedom isn’t free, and unfettered greed may not be the best way to run a country. As a result, America is 10 years behind the Chinese in solar manufacturing. First Solar is hoping to tilt the balance away from China and toward America but it can’t do it alone.

Were it not for the funding made available by Congress and the administration in the past two years, none of this would be happening — something to keep in mind whenever you vote in a local, state, or federal election. The forces of evil (funded by fossil fuel interests) haven’t given up, although they got a bloody nose in the most recent election. The fight for a nation that values all of its citizens, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or financial status will never be over and is a battle that will need to be fought virtually forever.

The First Solar announcement is important from a manufacturing perspective, but it is significant on so many other levels. If America hopes to lead the world into a low carbon future, vigorous policy initiatives like those crafted by the Biden administration will be essential.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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