North America’s amazing PV module manufacturing turnaround

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Over the last few years, North America has lost a significant number of PV manufacturers, through production capacity curtailment by existing incumbents as well as start-up wannabes going to the wall.

The dire PV manufacturing footprint cast a serious doubt over the viability of a manufacturing base altogether, reinforced by the similar fate of PV manufacturing in Europe and the fact that around 85% of production now resided in Asia, primarily China. The march to Asia looked irreversible. 

PV Tech’s database of US PV module company bankruptcies tops 20 since Solyndra collapsed in August 2011. This excludes overseas companies such as Suntech Power Holdings and Sharp closing small module plants in the US as well as the collapse of Hoku and its polysilicon plant. 

Forget the ‘Valley of Death’ it’s the rise of the US machine

However, 2014 has become the turnaround year for North America, primarily the US, with a number of manufacturers announcign capacity expansions as well as the likes of SolarCity announcing major plans to enter the manufacturing sector. 

The table belowe condenses PV Tech’s database of announced 2014 PV manufacturing plans in the US to date. In total 10 module manufacturers have announced new production plans totalling just below 2GW in nameplate capacity.  

Table 1. PV Tech's analysis of planned capacity expansions announced in the US in 2014. Total is close to 2GW. Image: PV Tech.

Interestingly, the majority of planned production is targeting future demand requirements in North America and the preliminary anti-dumping ruling has a good part to play in some of the decisions. 

More production possible

Although we have just featured publicly announced production plans it is worth noting that several PV manufacturers have either indicated potential US-based production in the near future while others are rumoured to be considering some form of US manufacturing operations or OEM contracts. 

Japanese CIS thin-film producer, Solar Frontier, has already publicly said that the US and, in particular, New York state could be the destination for its first overseas production plant. 

Chinese firm Yingli Green has been rumoured to be dusting-off previous US manufacturing plans, while JA Solar and Trina Solar have also been rumoured to be considering some form of US manufacturing presence. 

Much of these plans will ultimately depend on ongoing negotiations between the US and China on reaching some kind of trade deal that would end or reduce tariffs for Chinese producers. 

Manufacturing bragging rights

SolarWorld is one of 10 companies planning to expand capacity in the US. Image: SolarWorld

It should not come as a surprise that SolarWorld has placed great emphasis on positioning itself in its PR as the “largest crystalline silicon solar producer in the Americas for nearly 40 years” but Canadian Solar just upped the ante by announcing that its module supply deal with US installer Sunrun would “maintain our market position and grow as North America's largest solar manufacturer”.

Suniva has also got in the act by declaring it was “America’s leading solar module manufacturer, employing a higher percentage of American workers than any other tier-one solar manufacturer”. 

That is clearly not the case when analysing nameplate capacity levels, let alone when capacity expansions listed in the table are added to existing nameplate capacity. 

Clearly, SolarCity would have the bragging rights to being North America’s largest manufacturer but that’s a few years away as groundbreaking let alone ramping is not a 2015 affair. 

Taking the North America bragging rights is actually Canadian Solar, which doubled capacity at its assembly plant in Ontario, Canada to 500MW. SolarWorld had 390MW of actual operating production capacity. First Solar was a close third with an estimated 356MW, due to four lines having been upgraded for higher throughput and module efficiencies in 2014. Each line at its plant in Perrysburg, Ohio should have a capacity of 89MW by year-end, according to First Solar.

However, based on officially announced expansion plans, bragging rights are about to change. 

Keeping with the North America description, First Solar’s two-line expansion at Perrysburg would take its estimated capacity at the facility to 534MW, not taking account of further module efficiency gains expected next year. 

SolarWorld would be ranked second with 530MW after completion and ramp by the third quarter of 2015.

Without any new capacity expansions yet announced by Canadian Solar for its Ontario facility, the company would retain third position with 500MW of module assembly capacity. 

Taking a purely US-centric angle on manufacturing capacity bragging rights, clearly it’s going to be neck and neck between First Solar and SolarWorld in 2015. 

SolarWorld may just have the edge as it also said in announcing its latest expansion that it had plans to take capacity to 630MW, though no timeframes were disclosed. 

After 2015, things could get interesting again as SolarCity ramps in New York but whatever the outcome, manufacturing in the US is back and hopefully back for good.

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