Days after solar cell maker SpectraWatt notified New York authorities that it will shut down its seven-month-old factory and lay off 117 employees, China’s Trina Solar announced Monday that it will invest $800 million in new manufacturing plants over the next three years.
The move by Trina underscores just how difficult it has become for solar startups in the United States to compete against the massive investment being poured into Chinese photovoltaic module makers.
That’s particularly the case for startups making conventional silicon photovoltaic cells such as SpectraWatt, which was spun out of Intel in 2008 with an initial $50 million investment lead by the chip giant’s venture capital arm, Goldman Sachs and other investors.
In 2010, Chinese firms accounted for 72 percent of new photovoltaic manufacturing capacity worldwide, according to a survey by iSuppli, a California research firm. Seven of the top 10 module manufacturers are based in China.
As Chinese solar companies like Suntech Power Holdings and Yingli Green Energy have ramped up manufacturing — supported by generous subsidies from China’s government — they’ve cut prices and grabbed big shares of the U.S. and European markets.
Trina, for instance, established its U.S. headquarters in San Jose, Calif., last year and began signing deals, including one to supply utility Southern California Edison with 45 megawatts’ worth of solar panels. (In October, I stood on the roof of a 562,089-square-foot warehouse in Ontario, Calif., that was covered in Trina solar panels.)
In contrast, SpectraWatt’s entire manufacturing capacity is 60 megawatts. On Monday, Trina said it would ship 1,000 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic cells by the end of the year, an 151 percent increase from shipments in 2009.
The company did not specify how much additional manufacturing capacity would result from the $800 million to be invested in a new plant complex called the Changzhou Trina PV Park.
Photo: Todd Woody