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Solar Panel Manufacturers Retrofitting Empty Warehouses

John K. Borchardt (2012 Directory)
One legacy of the recent recession is a large number of empty buildings, often warehouses, scattered across the country. These are becoming valuable assets to the localities in which they are located and to businesses looking to open new plants. Solar panel manufacturers are taking advantage of these empty buildings to reduce the cost of opening additional production facilities. Also, remodeling an empty structure is faster than building a new facility.

Solar Cell Manufacturing
Still, one needs more than four walls and a roof to manufacture solar panels. Specialized, often proprietary, manufacturing equipment is needed. The production of solar cells utilizes some of the same processing and manufacturing techniques as used in other semiconductor devices, such as computer and memory chips. Silicon wafers are made by wire-sawing silicon ingots into very thin slices. These are cleaned with weak acids to remove unwanted particles. The wafers are then textured to create a rough surface to increase efficiency. Proprietary materials called dopants are then used to make a solar cell from the wafer.

These cells are used to make solar modules. When multiple modules are assembled together, the resulting integrated group of modules all oriented in one plane is referred to in the industry as a solar panel.

Solar Panel Manufacturing

The specialized equipment used to manufacture solar panels is expensive. Substantial amounts of electricity and water are also needed to operate the processing equipment, so buildings must be rewired and plumbing installed.

According to SoloPower CEO and President Tim Harris, his firm ordered "tens-of-millions-of dollars" worth of heavy equipment to convert an empty Nike warehouse in Wilsonville, Oregon, into a solar panel manufacturing facility that could employ as many as 500 workers. The city council created a one-building urban renewal district to enable SoloPower to begin renovating the warehouse. The council also approved an $11 million incentive package to help offset the costs of retrofitting the facility. However, opponents began petitioning against the deal. Faster construction and a larger financial package from Portland led SoloPower to locate its plant in an empty warehouse there.

Aurora, Colorado, will be the site of the nation's largest solar panel factory costing $300 million. Why Aurora? GE, which purchased PrimeStar Solar earlier this year, chose this Denver suburb because it could quickly bring production online. This will be possible using an empty 200,000-square-foot warehouse in Aurora that can be easily retrofitted and expanded. The city of Aurora provided a $20 million subsidy for the plant, and the state of Colorado contributed $2 million. The plant is expected to create 350 new jobs.

Some localities have many empty buildings that could serve as solar panel factories. The Phoenix region has cataloged 200 ready-to-use empty buildings and lots.

The first solar panels from Suntech Power Holdings' 117,000-square-foot converted building in Goodyear, Arizona, near Phoenix were shipped to Sempra Generation's Mesquite Solar 1 power generation facility in nearby Arlington on Oct. 25, 2011. When completed in 2013, Mesquite Solar 1 will use 800,000 solar panels manufactured in Suntech's plant, about one third of its total production.

While using empty buildings reduces costs, the plants still don't come cheap. For example, Suntech spent over $16 million to lease and improve the building and to install equipment at the facility. But "a skilled work force and supportive business climate made Arizona a natural fit for Suntech," said John Lefebvre, president of Suntech America.

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