The key ingredient of the solar panel is once again made in the USA

A Moses Lake, Wash., factory that closed its doors in 2019 will soon resume shipping a key ingredient used in most solar panels and that for years was produced almost exclusively in China.

The revival of the factory, owned by REC Silicon, could help achieve a long-standing goal of many American lawmakers and energy executives to re-establish a complete domestic supply chain for solar panels and reduce the world's reliance on plants in China and Southeast Asia. .

REC Silicon reopened the factory that produces polysilicon, the building block of most solar panels, in November in partnership 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 said this month it became the largest shareholder in REC Silicon, which is based in Norway.

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

“Overall, the U.S. was No. 1,” said Kurt Levens, CEO of REC Silicon. “People forget that. More cell production outside of China is needed.”

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

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

The Biden administration has used the Inflation Reduction Act and other policies to try to revive the U.S. solar manufacturing industry. This has spurred greater production of solar panels and other renewable energy products.

But the administration's efforts have recently been undermined by a sharp increase in the production of solar panels and their components in China and a sharp decline in the prices of those products. That's been good for panel buyers, such as energy companies that are building solar farms, but it's hurt U.S. manufacturers.

“Various trade actions, oversupply and dumping have essentially made it nearly impossible to export polysilicon,” said Michael Carr, executive director of the Solar Energy Manufacturers for America Coalition, a trade group. “The polysilicon industry has really been through some tough times.”

The American Alliance for Solar Manufacturing Trade Committee, a group of solar manufacturers that includes Qcells and REC Silicon, on Wednesday petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce to investigate potentially illegal trade practices by Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam and impose higher tariffs on products exported to the United States. The complaint 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 polysilicon production in China and other Southeast Asian countries, which the companies say has helped suppliers sell their products at low prices. Many solar companies have pledged to avoid products that require forced labor, but the sources of the panels and their components can be difficult to trace and verify.

The only U.S. solar manufacturer that has managed to maintain a good market share in the industry is First Solar, which produces thin-film panels that do not use polysilicon.

Researchers and companies are developing other technologies, but polysilicon panels, created at Bell Labs in 1954, remain “the backbone of silicon solar cells,” said Yogi Goswami, an engineering professor at the University of South Florida and editor-in-chief. by Solar Compass, magazine of the International Solar Alliance. “Innovative people in the United States have discovered something that no one else knew could be done.”

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

REC Silicon transforms silicon into polysilicon, a granular substance that resembles black peppercorns. When the company delivers its product later this quarter, Qcells will turn those granules into ingots and then cut them into solar wafers that will be assembled into panels that can be mounted on rooftops or open land.

REC Silicon began ramping up operations in November, hiring about 200 people and expanding the factory, said Levens, the chief executive. The plant sits on 200 acres in Moses Lake, an agricultural and industrial town roughly in central Washington.

“It's a cleaner method, with less risk, and ultimately having the ability to do this domestically is a practical long-term solution,” said Danielle Merfeld, global chief technology officer for Qcells. “We represent a small fraction of the nation's opportunities. It should give not only politicians but also other solar producers the confidence to make the investment. There is room to grow a lot of solar capacity in this country.”

Chuck Sutton, vice president of global sales and marketing at REC Silicon, said he never gave up on the plant, which began production in 1984. “My goal for the last few years has been to find a way to restart this plant,” he said. stated. “We just kept trying to keep it all together.”

During a visit to the factory this week, dozens of crates full of boxes of polysilicon beads were visible on the floor, ready to be shipped. REC Silicon executives hope this is just the beginning of a new wave of growth for the plant: The company owns another 260 acres that they say could be used to expand operations.

Executives said they will look for opportunities to offer their product to more customers like Qcells interested in producing ingots and wafers in the United States. Levens said the government may need to provide more incentives to invest in the manufacturing sector.

“It's really important for us as a country to be able to maximize the opportunities afforded by the Inflation Reduction Act,” he said. “Maybe more belts and braces are needed to figure out how to do that.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *