Qcells has expanded its Dalton factory three times. Credit: Qcells

One expansion down, and a much bigger one to go. 

Qcells, the South Korean-owned firm that has become the Western Hemisphere’s largest solar panel producer, announced Wednesday that it completed its third expansion in Georgia

The move, included in a $2.5 billion announcement in January, added 510 jobs and gave the company 2 more gigawatts of solar panel manufacturing capacity, bringing output at the Dalton plant to 5.1 gigawatts per year. 

Qcells will produce more than 30,000 panels per day in Dalton, including a residential model and a bifacial panel designed to soak in the sun on both sides. The latter is commonly used in utility-scale projects, which make up the bulk of the installed capacity in Georgia and across the U.S. 

The bifacial model may have a hard time competing with cheaper imports, as such panels are excluded from a layer of tariffs initiated by former President Trump and extended by President Biden last February to shield the solar manufacturing industry in the U.S. from low-cost imports. 

Qcells credited Section 201 tariffs for helping encourage its initial investment of $150 million 1.7 gigawatts in 2019, which led to 750 new hires. That was followed by a 1.4 gigawatt expansion with 535 new jobs. The latest expansion came this year. By 2024, the Dalton plant will employ 1,800 people.

Now, the company is emboldened by the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $10 billion in tax incentives designed to bring key steps in the solar supply chain to the U.S., from polysilicon to ingots, wafers and cells — none of which the company buys domestically today. 

Walking a political tightrope, Qcells credited the solar incentives that ended up getting included in the IRA as setting the proper regulatory framework for the company to thrive, while praising the “incredible support” from the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

On the solar issue, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff has sought to frame historic investments as a response to the IRA, while Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, points to policies enacted by the state and its efforts to build a relationship with the company long before the legislation passed in August 2022. 

The two have butted heads on the issue of whether federal largesse or Georgia’s business-friendly policies have had a greater impact on investments that, combined, will create 4,000 jobs once the Cartersville facility is complete. 

“Out of all the places Qcells could have gone, they chose to operate and expand here in Georgia because of our unrivaled assets and the competitive package we put together in 2019,” Mr. Kemp said in a statement. 

A Qcells news release seemed designed to get all on the same page: Supporting solar manufacturing jobs in the state. 

“The Inflation Reduction Act and the efforts of Georgia’s economic development team helped make these ambitious plans possible, and with it thousands of careers in clean energy,” CEO Justin Lee said in a statement. “As we build new solar technology from Dalton and prepare for the start of Cartersville, it is critical that our local to federal leaders continue to work not only with us, but the larger industry to ensure our collective investments deliver for communities for decades to come.” 

Some industry groups have opposed government subsidies and protectionist tariffs, saying they drive up the cost of solar installations, even as that segment of the industry drives much more job growth than manufacturing. 

Proponents like Mr. Ossoff have said that this industry is too important to be beholden to China, the world’s largest solar panel producer. 

“Our state is emerging as the advanced energy capital of the nation, thanks to federal infrastructure and manufacturing policies that are benefiting Georgia more than any other state in the country,” Mr. Ossoff said in a statement circulated by Qcells. 

When its final expansion is completed in 2024, Qcells says it will produce 8.4 gigawatts of solar modules in Georgia, enough to power 1.3 million homes annually.

The announcement added to a big week for solar manufacturing in Georgia. Suniva, the long-dormant solar cell producer, said it had procured $110 million in capital and would revive its local factories, hiring 240 people. Starting in spring, an initial phase would produce 1 gigawatt of cells, while a subsequent phase would bring capacity to 2.4 gigawatts. 

In a cyclical turn of events, Suniva in 2017 petitioned for the tariffs that helped pave the way for Qcells in the market. Suniva was briefly owned by a Chinese company yet vocally fought for tariffs designed to keep out panels made by Chinese firms. The bankrupt company was later bought by Lion Point Capital, the New York-based private equity firm that owns it today. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...