Suntech Power Holdings Co. could serve about 8 percent of the U.S. solar-panel market from the factory it plans to open in the Phoenix area next year, officials said Monday.
The Chinese solar-panel maker, which shipped more traditional solar panels last year than any other company in the world, announced it is deciding between an East Valley and West Valley city for a 100,000-square-foot U.S. factory.
The announcement will bring a modest factory to Arizona, but it means two solar powerhouses will have a presence here, which development officials hope will attract more investment to the area.
First Solar Inc., which makes "thin-film" solar panels using different semiconductor materials than traditional solar panels, is based in Tempe. It produces has the highest factory capacity in the world in addition to boasting the lowest cost in the industry.
First Solar makes its panels in Ohio, Germany and Malaysia.
Other solar companies are considering opening factories in Arizona, and if they do, it could prompt glass companies or other suppliers to open facilities here to serve them, Gov. Jan Brewer said.
"Trust me, they are not going to be the last ones (to come here)," she said of Suntech.
Tax incentives that the Legislature passed and Brewer signed into law this year were helpful in attracting Suntech, she said.
"Arizona is now the premier place to do business in the United States," Brewer said. "Arizona is celebrating its competitive position in the global economy."
The Arizona Suntech plant should open with the capacity to produce enough panels each year to generate 30 megawatts of electricity, or enough for about 7,500 homes while the sun is shining.
"That's the get-go from Day 1," said Wei-Tai Kwok, Suntech's vice president of marketing. "The reason we are opening in the U.S. is we are excited about the growth of the solar market. We expect to do great things."
In 2008, Suntech's existing factories produced 498 megawatts of solar panels, most of which were sold to Europe.
Suntech sells about 8 percent of its panels in the U.S. and intends to grow its market share with the new plant, Kwok said. The U.S. installed 342 megawatts of solar panels in 2008, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, mostly in California, New Jersey, Colorado and Nevada.
If the U.S. market grows to 400 megawatts or more a year, as expected, Suntech will be able to produce 7.5 percent of the U.S. supply in Arizona and supplement that with panels from its plants in China while expanding in the U.S., Kwok said.
Suntech will ship panels from the Arizona factory across the U.S. and for the few sales it makes in Canada, he added.
Solar panels made with silicon as a semiconductor that turns sunlight into electricity require the silicon wafers to be "doped," or processed, before they produce energy as solar cells.
Suntech will continue to process its silicon, most of it imported from Texas, into solar cells at its Chinese facilities, Kwok said.
Suntech will import the processed solar cells to Arizona, where they will be mounted with aluminum frames on glass panels and wired for installation.
Its panels can be used in all types of applications, from rooftop-solar arrays to large power plants.
First Solar's panels also can be used in all applications, but thin-film solar panels are best suited for large power plants because they require more area to generate the same amount of electricity as traditional solar panels like those Suntech makes.