Major solar panel plant opens in US amid backdrop of industry worries about low-priced Asian imports

Oct 18, 2023, 3:01 AM

An employee works on a solar panel inside the Hanwha Qcells Solar plant, Monday, Oct. 16, 2023, in ...

An employee works on a solar panel inside the Hanwha Qcells Solar plant, Monday, Oct. 16, 2023, in Dalton, Ga. The Korean company is opening what it says is the first solar panel factory to begin production in the U.S. since the passage of President Joe Biden’s signature climate legislation. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

A South Korean company has begun production at a huge new solar panel factory in Georgia even as industry leaders say surging Asian imports could dampen efforts to make more solar components in the United States.

Qcells, a unit of South Korea’s Hanwha Group, said Wednesday that it can now turn out enough solar panels to generate 5.1 gigawatts of power yearly at a two-factory complex in the northwest Georgia city of Dalton. That’s almost 40% of U.S. solar panel capacity, according to figures from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Qcells’ opened its first factory in 2019 and an even larger plant in phases since, what the company describes as the largest solar investment in American history.

“It’s another milestone as we as a company really strive to become a global leader and a U.S. leader in solar manufacturing,” said Scott Moskowitz, Qcells head of market strategy and public affairs, speaking with The Associated Press after a plant tour Monday.

The company says its new plant is the first solar module factory in the U.S. to begin production since passage of President Joe Biden’s signature climate legislation. Qcells’ $208 million investment again shows how federal incentives are spurring a nationwide boom in renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Industry jitters about a flood of cheap solar panels from overseas show how dependent on federal policy the solar industry remains. That’s a threat in part because former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination, is hostile to renewable energy.

Qcells leaders say the new plant showcases more efficient equipment and processes, part of a much larger investment intended to bring key steps in solar manufacturing to the U.S. A solar panel, or module, is assembled from solar cells most commonly made from wafers cut from ingots of polysilicon.

Today, the company’s solar cells are imported from Asia. But 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Dalton in Cartersville, Qcells is building a $2.3 billion complex to take polysilicon refined in Washington state and make ingots, wafers and solar cells — in addition to 3.3 gigawatts of solar modules. That plant is scheduled to open in phases starting next year.

Currently, no silicon ingots or wafers are made in the U.S. But Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, besides offering a extra tax credit on American-made solar equipment, lets manufacturers earn incentives for every unit of polysilicon they refine and every wafer, cell and module they make. For example, Qcells earns a tax credit of 7 cents per watt for every panel it makes in Dalton, or $34.30 for every 490-watt residential panel made.

Even with that boost, solar industry leaders warn, factories will struggle to compete with a new spike in cheap Asian imports. They’re again urging federal officials to investigate whether solar panels are being dumped at unfairly low prices. Previous investigations have led to anti-dumping tariffs on panels made in China and Taiwan.

U.S. officials shouldn’t regard the spike as a normal market fluctuation, said Mike Carr, executive director of the Solar Energy Manufacturers for America Coalition, a group that includes Qcells. He argues Chinese component makers are pushing out cheap modules from southeast Asian factories, tanking panel prices to ensure Chinese dominance and smother U.S. manufacturing.

“This is likely to be the No. 1 new energy source in the 21st century,” Carr said. “It’s already cheaper than pretty much anything else to install. It is the path to meeting our climate goals. So I think it becomes a real national security kind of concern. The way OPEC is in oil markets, we don’t want to allow China to become that same controller of supply in solar.”

Qcells sees current low prices as a “near-term challenge” in achieving economies of scale and serving a long-term market, Moskowitz said. Beyond trade policy, he said, requiring federal agencies to buy American-made products and promoting panels produced with fewer carbon emissions could bolster Qcells.

Politics envelops the solar industry. Vice President Kamala Harris visited the plant earlier this year. At the state level, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has wrestled with Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff over political credit for electric vehicle and renewable energy investments flowing to Georgia.

“Out of all the places Qcells could have gone, they chose to operate and expand here in Georgia because of our unrivaled assets and the competitive package we put together,” Kemp said in a statement.

Ossoff and fellow Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock note they authored the component incentives that benefit Qcells, emphasizing federal policy.

“Our state is emerging as the advanced energy capital of the nation, thanks to federal infrastructure and manufacturing policies that are benefiting Georgia more than any other state,” Ossoff said in a statement.

Qcells, for its part, praises both state and federal assistance.

“To build these markets up and to have them work, you need a whole government approach,” Moskowitz said.

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Major solar panel plant opens in US amid backdrop of industry worries about low-priced Asian imports