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First Solar to build 3rd plant, add 500 jobs

Displaying high confidence in the U.S. solar industry in general and northwest Ohio specifically, solar panel maker First Solar Inc. said it will invest $680 million to build a third factory in the Toledo area by 2023, doubling its production capacity and creating 500 jobs.

First Solar, headquartered in Tempe, Ariz., said construction of the new 1.8-million-square-foot plant will begin in the second half of this year, with production starting sometime in the first half of 2023.

The plant will be located in Wood County’s Lake Township and adjacent to the 1.1 million-square-foot plant the company built in Lake in 2018 at a cost of $400 million on the southeast corner of State Rt. 795 and Tracy Road.

The company also has a 600,000-square-foot plant and research facility in the nearby Cedar Business Park in Perrysburg Township.

Mike Koralewski, First Solar’s chief manufacturing operations officer, said the company is betting on the Biden Administration’s support for green energy and an expected increase in demand for green, sustainable energy products to absorb the additional production the new plant will provide.

In a statement, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm praised First Solar’s planned expansion in Wood County.

“These investments in American-made solar technologies are the perfect embodiment of President Biden’s strategy to build out domestic manufacturing and supply chains for critical industries,” Ms. Granholm said. “As a partner to our solar program since 2003 and a DOE loan guarantee recipient in 2012, this company is a great example of how investment and innovation can build the clean energy future right here at home — shoring up American competitiveness and bringing good-paying jobs to all pockets of the country.”

First Solar’s current operations in Wood County have the capacity to produce 2.7 gigawatts worth of panels annually. The new plant will add another 3.3 gigawatts, bringing total production capacity to 6 gigawatts annually.

The entire U.S. solar-panel production capacity is expected to reach 11 gigawatts once the new First Solar facility is online.

“We’re doubling down on manufacturing in the U.S.,” Mr. Koralewski said, adding that come 2023, only an integrated panel-making operation in China will be larger than First Solar’s production facilities in Wood County.

If there was any doubt northwest Ohio is the solar capital of North America, that has been erased, Mr. Koralewski added.

“We already were. But this makes it by leaps and bounds. We are the largest solar panel manufacturer in the western hemisphere,” he said.

First Solar’s roots are in the Toledo area, where it began as Solar Cells Inc., a company founded in 1986 by the late inventor Harold McMaster. In 1999, it was sold to True North Partners LLC and renamed First Solar. The company went public in 2006.

In building more capacity, First Solar officials are betting that businesses “will want clean, affordable, reusable energy manufactured by an American solar company that has a transparent and well-developed supply chain,” Mr. Koralewski added.

Mark Widmar, First Solar’s chief executive officer, said the company is doing its part to transition the United States to a cleaner future.

“We have said that we stand ready to support President Biden’s goal to transition America to a clean, energy-secure future, and our decision to more than double our U.S. manufacturing capacity with this new facility is First Solar making good on that commitment,” Mr. Widmar said.

“This facility will represent a significant leap forward in photovoltaics manufacturing, a true factory of the future,” he added.

The construction of the plant is contingent on First Solar receiving permitting and pending approval of State of Ohio, JobsOhio, regional and local incentives.

In Wood County, First Solar is seeking tax abatement of 65 percent for 15 years, county officials said.

With additional hiring over the next two years and another 500 workers at the new plant, employment at First Solar could exceed 2,000 by 2023. A third facility will allow the company to produce a new solar panel every 2.75 seconds.

In 2016 First Solar began producing its Series 6 thin-film (a combination of the chemical elements cadmium and tellurium) panels, which was a breakthrough of sorts for both the company and thin-film technology. The Series 6, which was three times the size of the company’s previous Series 4 panels, was thinner, lighter, and more efficient at converting the sun’s energy into electricity.

Mr. Koralewski predicted that by 2023, Series 6 will be using advanced technology that could boost its efficiency even further, given that the plant will be one of the most advanced in the solar industry.

“This is going to be industry 4.0 architecture, machine-to-machine communication, artificial intelligence with autonomous learning versus automation,” Mr. Koralewski said. “We think this is a great stepping stone.”

One issue that First Solar will face that it did not in 2016 — when it laid off 350 employees to retool its plant for Series 6 production, then eventually hired 500 employees to bring its total employment to a current 1,500 — is competition for workers.

In the last year Amazon has opened warehouses in Rossford and Toledo that will employ 1,300 total; NSG Glass opened a plant in Troy Township that hired 110 workers; United Parcel Service is expanding and plans to add 600 workers, and Peloton is building a Troy Township plant that will hire 2,200 workers.

Mr. Koralewski said First Solar is aware that it will face competition for labor in 2023.

“But the way we look at it, we offer a very competitive wage. We offer a clean, safe workspace and we’re a high technology company,” he said. “We have very competitive benefits. And we have a mission and a vision that I think people can resonate to moving forward.”

Wade Gottschalk, executive director of the Wood County Economic Development Commission, said there’s no doubt First Solar will have to compete for workers, but it is working with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to obtain training funds and the solar-panel maker “will pay for an employee’s training, then promote them” upon completion.

“Finding, training, and retaining a workforce is the biggest problem a company can face,” Mr. Gottschalk said.


Posted By: The Toledo Blade on June 9, 2021.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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