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Published: Friday, 4/30/2010

First Solar planning new factory for panels

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

First Solar Inc., a Toledo-born company that operates a solar panel plant in Perrysburg Township which employs about 1,000 workers, is looking to build a similar plant to be operating about 18 months from now.

But the Tempe, Ariz., firm won't say where the factory will be built.

"We haven't chosen a country or even a part of the world yet. And we don't have a timeline on a decision for where the plant will go," said Alan Bernheimer, a spokesman for First Solar, which began in Toledo and later moved its headquarters to Arizona.

Its sole North American plant is in suburban Toledo. The facility has repeatedly been expanded. It has four manufacturing lines and an annual production capacity of 223 megawatts worth of solar panels. The proposed new plant would have a capacity of 220 megawatts, Mr. Bernheimer said.

The local plant's production is expected to increase to meet the growing demand in the United States and abroad, he said. First Solar yesterday said it will buy a company in the West to help it gain more work to make solar panels for utilities in the Southwest, which could generate a need for more production.

"All our plants are at full capacity right now," Mr. Bernheimer said. "We are capacity constrained, which is why we need another plant."

The likelihood that metro Toledo could get another such plant is unclear. Solar energy research at University of Toledo and local companies and laboratories has been touted by national experts

Steve Weathers, president of Toledo's Regional Growth Partnership, said local economic development officials were aware that First Solar was thinking about adding another plant. Plans are in the works to put northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan in position for First Solar to consider, he said.

"I think there's an opportunity … to locate that plant in our respective region," Mr. Weathers said.

Ohio could offer First Solar low-cost financing for a new plant, retraining funds for workers, and help getting its facility constructed quickly, he said.

"Wood County's done a good job, and Lucas County has been OK, at expediting the permitting process," he said. "We want to make sure they can expedite their time to the marketplace."

Bethany Close, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Development, said state officials were not aware that First Solar is planning to build a new plant somewhere, "but we are in contact regularly with First Solar.

"We will continue to reach out to them with incentives to help keep any expansion within Ohio," she said.

First Solar announced Wednesday its plans to add the plant as it released strong first-quarter earnings, with a profit of $172 million on sales of $568 million.

The company also has plants in Malaysia and Germany, with one under construction in France.

"There's no question that demand for our products in North America is increasing," Mr. Bernheimer said. That demand is among the factors company executives will weigh in deciding where to build the new facility.

- Jon Chavez



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