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The key ingredient in the solar panel is again manufactured in the USA.| GuyWhoKnowsThings


A factory in Moses Lake, Washington, that closed in 2019 will soon resume shipping a critical ingredient used in most solar panels that for years has been made almost exclusively in China.

Reactivating the factory, owned by REC Silicon, could help achieve a long-standing goal of many U.S. lawmakers and energy executives to reestablish a full domestic supply chain for solar panels and reduce the world's dependence on plants in China and Southeast Asia. .

REC Silicon reopened the factory, which makes polysilicon, the basic component of the vast majority of solar panels, in November in partnership with Hanwha Qcells, a South Korean company that is investing billions of dollars in the production of solar panels in the United States. . As part of the deal, Hanwha said this month it had become the largest shareholder of REC Siliconwhich is based in Norway.

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

“Overall, the United States was number one,” said Kurt Levens, CEO of REC Silicon. “People forget it. More cell manufacturing is needed outside of China.”

Factories in China and Southeast Asia produce more than 95 percent of solar panels using polysilicon and most of the components that go into those devices. Chinese manufacturers are so dominant that most U.S. manufacturers stopped producing polysilicon, including REC Silicon.

Industry executives say the Chinese government's tariffs on solar imports and the extensive financial and other support it has offered domestic manufacturers over the years have made it much harder for companies from other countries to compete. places. A smaller REC Silicon plant in Butte, Montana, and two other major companies (Hemlock and Wacker) still make polysilicon in the United States, but their products are primarily used in semiconductor chips.

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

But the administration's efforts have recently been undermined by a Strong increase in the production of solar panels. and its components in China and a large drop in the prices of these products. That has been good for panel buyers, such as energy companies that are building solar farms, but it has hurt American manufacturers.

“Various trade actions, oversupply and dumping basically made it almost impossible to export polysilicon,” said Michael Carr, executive director of the Coalition of Solar Energy Manufacturers for the United States, a trade group. “The polysilicon industry has really fallen on hard times.”

The Trade Committee of the American Alliance for Solar Manufacturing, a group of solar manufacturers that includes Qcells and REC Silicon, on Wednesday asked the U.S. International Trade Commission and the Commerce Department to investigate potentially illegal trade practices for part of Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam and impose higher tariffs on products they export to the United States. The complaint focuses on companies based in China.

In addition to the allegations contained in the petition, solar manufacturers have expressed concerns about the use of forced labor in polysilicon production in China and other Southeast Asian countries, which companies say has helped suppliers sell their products at low prices. Many companies in the solar industry have pledged to avoid products that rely on forced labor, but the sources of panels and their components can be difficult to trace and verify.

The only American solar manufacturer that has been able to maintain a healthy market share in the industry is First Solarwhich produces thin film panels that do not use polysilicon.

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

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

REC Silicon processes silicon into polysilicon, a granular substance that resembles black peppercorns. When the company delivers its product later this quarter, Qcells will turn those pellets 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 the center of Washington.

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

Chuck Sutton, REC Silicon's vice president of global sales and marketing, said he had never given up on the facility, which began production in 1984. “My focus over the past few years has been to find a way to restart this plant,” he said. “We just kept trying to keep it all together.”

During a tour of the factory this week, dozens of boxes filled with cases of polysilicon pellets were seen on the floor, ready to be shipped. REC Silicon executives said they hoped this was just the beginning of a new wave of growth for the plant: The company owns another 260 acres that they said could be used to expand its operations.

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

“It's really important for us as a country to be able to maximize the opportunities that the Inflation Reduction Act presents,” he said. “Maybe there needs to be more belts and braces in terms of how to do this.”


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