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Three years after layoffs, First Solar producing like never before

Three years ago, the mood around the First Solar Inc. complex in Perrysburg Township was glum.

The Tempe, Ariz.-based solar panel manufacturer announced the permanent layoff of about 450 employees as it phased out its older panels to make room for its new, larger Series 6 thin-film panels.

The Series 6 went into production in mid-2018, and on Thursday the company commenced producing more of the Series 6 at a new plant that just opened in Lake Township.

Their combined annual production capacity of 1.9 gigawatts — 600 megawatts at Perrysburg Township and 1.3 gigawatts at Lake Township, makes First Solar the largest solar manufacturer not just in the United States, but in the entire Western Hemisphere, the company said.

The area workforce, which had dipped to around 800 after being just over 1,200, now stands at 1,400 employees.

“Based on our customers’ needs, we have the ability to ship anywhere in the world. This added capacity positions us to expand our support within the U.S. solar sector with American-made manufacturing,” Jay Lake, a First Solar spokesman said via email.

In a company statement, First Solar CEO Mark Widmar expressed pride that the company delivered on its promise in 2018 to minimize the layoffs by building the Lake Township plant and making it operational as quickly as possible.

“Eighteen months ago, we announced that we would expand our manufacturing footprint in the United States in response to demand. We have delivered,” Mr. Widmar said. “The fact that we were able to transform a greenfield site into a high-tech manufacturing facility in that time, and on time, speaks volumes about not just the scalability of our technology, and our ability to deliver on our commitments, but also the relentless energy of our people, our towering strength.”

First Solar officials have always said that the Series 6, which is larger, more efficient, and up to 40 percent cheaper to manufacture than the older Series 4 panels, would be a game-changer for the company.

Tymen de Jong, First Solar’s chief operating officer, suggested that the Lake Township plant, which he called “a factory of the future” also could be a game-changer in terms of manufacturing.

“Its levels of automation, digitalization, machine learning, and artificial intelligence demonstrate that the ambitions of Industry 4.0 are not out of reach for the (Photo Voltaic) manufacturing industry,” Mr. de Jong said. “We’re incredibly proud of what we have achieved, and we are proud to have achieved it in Northwestern Ohio, the technological home of American solar.”

The Series 6 was partially designed at First Solar’s R&D center in northwest Ohio and at another center in California. A Series 6 module can be produced in just 3½ hours using the company’s new fully-integrated manufacturing processes.

Thin film technology, which is based on cadmium telluride, has a carbon footprint that’s up to six times lower than crystalline silicon solar panels made using conventional, energy-intensive production methods.

The company is so convinced that the product will be a huge seller that it struck a deal with NSG Pilkington North America, a maker of sheet glass and the owner-operator of the Rossford glass plant, to invest $265 million to construct a 511,000-square-foot float glass plant in Wood County’s Troy Township.

The glass plant, which is under construction, will make specialty sheet glass for the Series 6 solar panel. First Solar’s manufacturing operations in Lake and Perrysburg Townships are just 10 miles from the glass plant site.

The opening of the Lake Township plant comes as First Solar also is celebrating two decades since its founding in 1999. The company is also celebrating a milestone — 25 gigawatts of photovoltaic modules shipped, something that no other American solar module manufacturing company has achieved.

On the Nasdaq market Thursday, First Solar shares gained 61 cents to close at $55.89.


Posted By: The Toledo Blade on October 30, 2019.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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