Solar energy is fast becoming an economic driver in a location that may surprise some people: the Southeast. The most recent developments include two thin film solar cell manufacturing facilities to be located in Mississippi and South Carolina, the beginning of construction of a silicon solar cell manufacturing facility in Tennessee, and the announcement of a solar farm to be installed at a former landfill in Georgia. All of these investments could bring around 5,000 jobs to the southeast by 2013.
In the past week, two large American thin film solar manufacturing companies have announced investments in the Southeast. Stion, headquartered in San Jose, CA, isopening a production facility in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and AQT Solar, based in Sunnyvale, CA, announced its plans for a solar factory in Blythewood, South Carolina. Combine these investments with the solar manufacturing investments made in Tennessee over the past couple years, and its clear that the solar industry is quickly becoming a significant driver of economic growth in the Southeast.Both Stion and AQT Solar make copper indium gallium selenide (or CIGS) thin-film photovoltaic cells. Thin-film is not yet as efficient as standard crystalline silicon solar cells, but they can be substantially cheaper and perform better in shading or cloudy days. Also, this thin flexible material is low-profile and allows for a broader range of applications.
The state of Mississippi provided $75 million dollars in loans and incentives to bring Stion to Hattiesburg. The project will create over 1,000 jobs and bring $500 million in investments over the next 6 years. Stion joins a number of green manufacturing companies that have located in Mississippi, such as Soladigm, Kior biofuels, and Twin Creek Technologies.
In South Carolina, AQT Solar, a startup company founded in 2008, should complete its thin-film solar manufacturing facility by the end of 2014. The facility will employ up to 1,000 people. Unlike Stion, AQT solar is not receiving any state or federal loans. The CEO of AQT, Michael Bartholomeusz, claims they “have the capital resources to facilitate this build-out.”
These large solar manufacturing facilities are in addition to the recent investments by the solar manufacturing industry in
Tennessee. Hemlock Semiconductor of Clarksville, Tennessee announced on December 21st that their construction workforce reached 1,150, with a forecast of 1,500 workers by mid 2011. Hemlock Semiconductor manufactures polycrystalline silicon solar cells.
Another manufacturer of these types of solar cells,Wacker Chemie, recently confirmed their plans for construction in Cleveland, TN. This more than $1 billion investment will create over 650 jobs by 2013.
Confluence Solar, Tennessee’s most recent solar industry newcomer, creates high efficiency monocrystalline silicon solar cells. They have plans to locate in Clinton, TN and create their silicon ingots using materials provided by Wacker Chemie and Hemlock Semiconductor. Construction is planned to begin by summer 2011.
These three companies join Sharp Electronics, which has been manufacturing solar panels in Memphis since 2003, and AGC FLat Glass in Kingsport, TN that manufactures the glass used in solar panels. In all, solar manufacturing is a rapidly growing economic engine that is providing much-needed investment and jobs here in the Southeast.
The growth of solar manufacturing in the Southeast has been accompanied by rapid growth in the solar installation industry. Reports from TVA’s Generation Partners Program reveal that since the program’s start in 2003, the number of solar installers in the TVA service area has gone from just a handful to over 40 currently. This growth will be further supported by the recent announcement in Georgia of a 1-megawatt solar farm to be installed on a landfill in DeKalb County near Atlanta. The 48-acre Hickory Ridge landfill is located near the Hartsfiled-Jackson International Airport and once completed, it will be the largest producer of solar power in the state of Georgia.
This kind of growth in solar manufacturing and installation is substantial considering the current economic state, but it only scratches the surface of what may be possible. Newly elected Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam must keep the growth of solar industries a priority in his administration just as he did as mayor of Knoxville with his support of the Knoxville’s Solar America City program. Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi must support both manufacturing and installation of solar technologies as much for the economic benefits as for the environmental benefits.
In these wavering economic times, it’s exciting to see rapid growth in solar manufacturing and installation in the Southeast.The jobs created by these investments will help thousands of people in the Southeast enjoy a better life while providing the products that will move us beyond coal and towards a brighter future. It’s a good start to 2011, and we look forward to more good news as the year progresses.
Lauren Steier is the Solar Energy Coordinator at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and she works with the City of Knoxville to help manage Knoxville’s Solar America City program.