Key Solar Panel Ingredient Is Made in the U.S.A. Again

Key Solar Panel Ingredient Is Made in the U.S.A. Again

A factory in Moses Lake, Washington, that closed in 2019 will soon resume shipping a key component used in most solar panels that has been made almost exclusively in China for years.

Reviving the factory, owned by REC Silicon, could help achieve a long-standing goal of many American lawmakers and energy executives: restoring a full domestic supply chain for solar panels and reducing the world’s reliance on facilities in China and Southeast Asia.

REC Silicon reopened the factory that makes polysilicon, the building block for the vast majority of solar panels, in November in collaboration with Hanwha Qcells, a South Korean company that is investing billions of dollars in solar panel production in the United States. As part of the deal, Hanwha announced this month that it had become the largest shareholder in Norway-based REC Silicon.

Company executives say they reopened the factory in part because of the incentives for domestic production in the Inflation Reduction Act, President Biden’s signature climate law. They expressed hope that their decision would also encourage other companies to revive production of a technology that was developed in the United States about 70 years ago.

“Overall, the United States was No. 1,” said Kurt Levens, CEO of REC Silicon. “People forget that. They need more cell manufacturing outside of China.”

Factories in China and Southeast Asia produce more than 95 percent of the solar panels that use polysilicon and most of the components used in these devices. Chinese manufacturers are so dominant that most manufacturers in the U.S. have stopped producing polysilicon, including REC Silicon.

Industry executives say the Chinese government’s tariffs on solar imports and the extensive financial and other support it has offered to domestic manufacturers over the years have made it very difficult for companies in other countries to compete. A smaller REC Silicon plant in Butte, Montana, and two other large companies – Hemlock and Wacker – still make polysilicon in the United States, but their products are largely used in semiconductor chips.

The Biden administration has tried to revive the U.S. solar industry with the Inflation Reduction Act and other measures. This has spurred the production of solar panels and other renewable energy products.

But the government’s efforts have recently been undermined by a sharp increase in the production of solar panels and their components in China and a sharp drop in the prices of these products. That was good for module buyers, such as energy companies building solar farms, but hurt U.S. manufacturers.

“Various trade measures, oversupply and dumping have made exporting polysilicon virtually impossible,” said Michael Carr, executive director of the Solar Energy Manufacturers for America Coalition, a trade group. “The polysilicon industry has really fallen on hard times.”

The American Alliance for Solar Manufacturing Trade Committee, a group of solar manufacturers that includes Qcells and REC Silicon, filed a petition Wednesday with the U.S. International Trade Commission and the Commerce Department to curb potentially illegal trade practices by Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam to investigate and impose higher tariffs on products they export to the United States. The lawsuit focuses on companies that have their headquarters in China.

In addition to the allegations in the petition, solar manufacturers have raised concerns about the use of forced labor in the production of polysilicon in China and other Southeast Asian countries, which the companies say has helped suppliers sell their products at low prices. Many companies in the solar industry have committed to avoiding products that rely on forced labor. However, it can be difficult to trace and verify the origin of the modules and their components.

The only U.S. solar manufacturer that has maintained a good market share in the industry is First Solar, which makes thin-film modules that do not use polysilicon.

Researchers and companies are developing other technologies, but polysilicon sheets made at Bell Labs in 1954 remain “the backbone of the silicon solar cell,” said Yogi Goswami, an engineering professor at the University of South Florida and editor-in-chief of Solar Compass, a journal of the International Solar Alliance . “Innovative people in the United States have found something that no one else knew was possible.”

Qcells said it would take 100 percent of the polysilicon that REC Silicon produced in Moses Lake and planned to sell solar panels made entirely in the United States. The company manufactures solar panels in Georgia and announced in January 2023 that it would invest $2.5 billion to expand its presence in the state.

REC Silicon processes silicon into polysilicon, a granular substance that resembles black peppercorns. When the company ships its product later this quarter, Qcells will convert these granules into ingots and then cut them into solar wafers that will be assembled into panels that can be mounted on roofs or open spaces.

REC Silicon began ramping up operations in November, hiring about 200 people and expanding the factory, said Mr. Levens, the chief executive. The plant is located on a 200-acre site in Moses Lake, an agricultural and industrial town roughly in the middle of Washington.

“It’s cleaner, lower risk and ultimately the ability to do it domestically is a long-term, practical solution,” said Danielle Merfeld, global chief technology officer at Qcells. “We are a small part of the domestic opportunity. It should give not only policymakers but also other solar manufacturers the confidence to make the investment. There is room to develop large solar capacity in this country.”

Chuck Sutton, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for REC Silicon, said he never gave up on the facility, which began production in 1984. “For the last few years, my focus has been on finding a way to get this facility back up and running,” he said. “We just always tried to keep everything together.”

A tour of the factory this week showed dozens of crates full of polysilicon granules on the floor, ready to be shipped. REC Silicon executives said they hoped this was just the start of a new wave of growth for the plant: The company owns another 260 acres that they said could be used to expand operations.

Executives said they would look for ways to offer their product to more customers like Qcells interested in producing ingots and wafers in the United States. Mr Levens said the Government may need to provide more incentives for investment in the manufacturing sector.

“It’s really important for us as a country to be able to make the most of the opportunities that the Inflation Reduction Act provides,” he said. “It may take more belts and suspenders to accomplish this.”

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2024-04-25 15:17:35