Trina, SunPower, Clairvoyant: The U.S. PV Hits Just Keep On Comin’

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At the risk of sounding slightly self-congratulatory, it feels nice to be right (at least once in a while)

A week after the publication of GTM Research’s report on U.S. PV manufacturing, which predicted that a major build-out of domestic manufacturing capacity was gathering momentum (the numbers say that the U.S.’s share of module manufacturing capacity will grow from 5 percent in 2008 to 14 percent by 2012), three major announcements vindicated this thesis: Trina Solar, Clairvoyant, and SunPower all made declarations this week to establish manufacturing module assembly plants in the U.S.

These developments aren’t particularly surprising when one considers the 2.7+ gigawatts of U.S. PV projects in the pipeline over the next half-decade, combined with the knowledge that module assembly has historically followed markets. Barring a few exceptions, however, media attention on the U.S. PV landscape has focused almost exclusively on the demand side of the coin. It’s somewhat understandable given that the stimulus funds made available through State Energy Program grants are all deployment-focused and that installation holds more employment creation potential than manufacturing, being more labor intensive. Still, it’s frustrating that this issue continues to be ignored by most: 20,000 manufacturing jobs ain’t no joke, especially at a time when unemployment is approaching 10 percent. On top of this, a build-out of PV production in the U.S. will also create all manner of opportunities for their vendors – for example, producers of polysilicon, glass, and encapsulants, and equipment, to name a few. Perhaps most importantly, while deployments uneasily await the return of credit markets to resume, growth in manufacturing is happening here and now.

And not to beat a dead horse, but this development is all the more interesting in light of the recent competing trend of outsourcing PV production to “low-cost” locations. It certainly provides a tangible counterpoint to those in the industry who believe that, like consumer electronics, PV production will eventually be reside almost entirely in Asia. My guess: While this is likely to be true for crystalline silicon cells and wafers (MEMC, anyone?), the U.S. will be home to a sizeable chunk of thin-film and c-Si module assembly plants over coming years. Then again, with China making all the right noises about gigawatt-scale PV deployment, I could end up having to eat my words. Which, I suppose, is all the more reason to flaunt it when you got it.

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