Matt Card

Five years ago, exports accounted for about 90 percent of solar cell and panel manufacturer Suniva Inc.’s sales, while only 10 percent came from the U.S. Now, that proportion has flipped as an increasing appetite for solar energy and an evolving regulatory landscape have made the U.S. one of the top three markets for the industry globally.

In response, Suniva is expanding its domestic manufacturing capacity and adjusting some of its sourcing in China, where it works with contract manufacturers to make panels. The company still makes all its cells – the brains of the panels which contain their most valuable intellectual property – in Norcross, where the Georgia Tech spinoff is based and employs 250 people.

But Suniva has begun construction on a second solar-panel plant in Saginaw, Mich., with an eventual capacity of 700,000 panels annually. To put that in perspective, the company now reportedly sells 600,000 per year worldwide.

The expansion in the U.S. had been long forecast and had nothing to do with the trader battle the U.S. has waged against Chinese-made panels since 2012, said Matt Card, vice president of sales and marketing. The World Trade Organization found July 14 that hefty U.S. duties imposed in 2012 on solar panels, steel and other products violated its rules. 

“This was not a reaction to any kind of regulatory action. This was strictly an action based on where we see market demand,” Mr. Card told Global Atlanta of the location decision. 

While lower costs throughout the solar energy value chain have enticed many companies and utilities with solar prices that are now competitive with traditional energy sources, Suniva’s newfound U.S. focus can be attributed to increased demand in federal government and U.S. military projects.

Selling in the U.S., though, in many cases comes with so-called “Buy American” requirements stipulating that U.S.-made inputs account for 50 percent of the finished product’s value. Also, a portion of final assembly must be done here. 

“As the U.S. market has grown more and more for us, we knew we needed to expand our U.S. manufacturing capacity because there is a greater requirement for customers to have an end-to-end US-made product,” Mr. Card said. 

In a twist only possible in a global economy, this move back home could end up benefiting Suniva’s efforts in one of its top new markets abroad: Mexico. Amid rumored changes to Mexico’s tariff structures, Suniva is sending U.S.-made panels there to ensure protections under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Suniva in January announced that its panels would power a rooftop parking canopy at an airplane maintenance facility in the state of Queretaro operated through a joint venture by Delta TechOps and Aeromexico. Industry studies show that Mexico could lead the way in solar for the years to come. 

“We are very bullish on Mexico,” Mr. Card said. 

Government policy aside, there has also been an “emotional movement” among companies and individuals to support American products even when not required by law.  

“People have woken up a little bit to the idea that when it makes sense, I want to support homegrown manufacturers,” Mr. Card said. “There’s been some pickup in our business because of that.”

The company will eventually hire 350 at the new Michigan plant, which is to begin production by the end the year. 

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...