The solar industry is positively booming in the U.S. The annual installation of solar systems rose from 1.265 megawatts in 2008 to 4.75 gigawatts in 2013. From nowhere, America has emerged as the third-largest market for solar. Installers are carpeting the nation’s deserts, parking lots, and rooftops with polysilicon panels that convert sunlight into electrons.
While the U.S. is manufacturing a lot of solar energy, production of solar panels has been another story entirely.
The two biggest solar panel manufacturers headquartered in the U.S., First Solar and SunPower, have located most of their manufacturing capacity in Southeast Asia. U.S. module production fell from 1,200 megawatts in 2011 to 541 megawatts in 2012 and bounced back up to 988 megawatts in 2013, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. “U.S.-based module production is currently limited to about 1 GW in practice,” says Finlay Colville, vice president at the solar-market research and analysis firm NPD Solarbuzz. “This represented just 2.5 percent of global demand in 2013.”
As the solar industry grows, other factors are pushing the production and consumption of U.S-made panels. Government agencies such as the military are among the most prolific purchasers of solar panels, which means their contractors may have to comply with the Buy American Act and the Buy America provisions of the 2009 stimulus bill. In addition, many of the entities arranging large solar installation are cities, states, nonprofits, or public institutions such as universities that tend to ask about the source of the materials used. “Over the last 24 months we’ve also seen a rise in what I term ‘emotional Buy American buyers,’ ” said Matt Card, vice president of global sales and marketing at Suniva. Industry experts say panels produced in the U.S. can cost only 10 percent more than panels made in China. “These are private companies or citizens who decide they are going to choose American-made panels.”