Solar Startup Plans Big Factory in S.C.

The building in Blytheville, S.C., where AQT Solar’s second solar factory will be opened. It already has one in Sunnyvale, Calif.
  
AQT Solar, via Business Wire The building in Blytheville, S.C., where AQT Solar’s second solar factory will be opened. It already has one in Sunnyvale, Calif.

As American solar companies face intense competition with low-cost Chinese manufacturers, a Silicon Valley photovoltaic cell maker has announced that it will open a huge factory in South Carolina.

AQT Solar’s plant is to be installed in phases in an existing 184,000-square-foot building in Blythewood, north of Columbia. By the end of 2014, the thin-film solar factory will have an annual manufacturing capacity of 1,000 megawatts and employ up to 1,000 workers, said Michael Bartholomeusz, chief executive of the company, a Sunnyvale, Calif., startup.

The plant will be one of the few big solar factories to be created in the United States in recent years without a federal loan guarantee and reflects a move to slash capital costs to compete with China.

“We’re not commenting on the specifics of our finances but can say that we have the capital resources to facilitate this build-out,” said Mr. Bartholomeusz, who founded AQT in 2008. “If you look at employee heads per megawatt, we’re running extremely resource-lean.”

AQT makes a type of thin-film photovoltaic cell called copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS. The company has modified off-the-shelf machines used to make computer hard drives to create CIGS cells using a proprietary process. AQT, which has raised $15 million from investors, further cut its capital costs by manufacturing only solar cells, which it sells to other companies to package into solar modules and panels.

Whether it achieves its goal of manufacturing 1,000 megawatts at the South Carolina plant depends on a volatile market.

A Silicon Valley rival, Solyndra, had raised more than $1 billion from investors and obtained a $535 million loan guarantee to build a $733 million state-of-the-art factory in Fremont, Calif., that opened in September. But by November, the company had shuttered an older factory and delayed expansion of the new one as it sought to lower its costs to compete with Chinese solar manufacturers.

Another thin-film solar cell maker, Abound Solar, received a $400 million federal loan guarantee last month to expand production at its existing Colorado factory and build a new plant in Indiana.

AQT currently operates a 15-megawatt factory in a former semiconductor plant in Sunnyvale and plans to expand its capacity to up to 40 megawatts by the end of the year. The company said it has orders for 160 megawatts’ worth of solar cells and has signed deals with a Mexican developer, Sol Pacifico, and Solar Enertech, a Chinese module maker backed by the green-tech investor David Gelbaum.

To lure AQT to South Carolina, the state offered the company tax breaks and $2 million in grants to be issued as the factory is built out.

But Mr. Bartholomeusz said the financial incentives, which he noted were similar to those offered by other states, were not the deciding factor, as AQT conducted a nationwide search for a factory site.

“When we looked at the cost of doing business, the educational system and the port and road infrastructure, South Carolina became the top choice,” he said.

By TODD WOODY/NYT

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