In the quiet Midwestern town of Pataskala, Ohio, a million-square-foot factory built on former farmland is marked by a sign: Illuminate USA.
The utility building is expected to begin production this month as one of the largest solar panel manufacturers in the United States. At full capacity, the $600 million plant will employ more than 1,000 workers, providing an economic boost to the rural community located on the outskirts of Columbus, the Ohio state capital.
The plant is an example of the type of project President Joe Biden is touting in his re-election campaign, moving manufacturing offshore while making the United States a leader in the technologies needed to decarbonize energy systems.
“When a company like Illuminate USA comes to our area, people really think, ‘Wow, this is amazing, this is great.’ Not only do these jobs pay well, but it’s a job I can feel good about,” said Angela Carnahan of Ohio Means Jobs, an employment agency.
Not everyone is as excited. Illuminate USA is a joint venture between Invenergy, America’s largest private developer of renewable energy, and Longi, the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer. This last partner aroused local suspicion because it is based in China.
“Pataskala is now infected with the cancer known as the Chinese Communist Party,” resident Jerry Forns said at a January city council meeting. “Does anyone really think the CCP cares that this country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles?
Opposition to the project underscores the dilemma facing U.S. policymakers as they seek to build a national supply chain for solar power — the fastest-growing next-generation source on the U.S. power grid — in a country that lacks the technological prowess of China. China produces more than three-quarters of all panels and an even higher share of its inputs like wafers, according to the International Energy Agency.
Kurt Wagner, chief financial officer of Illuminate USA, told the Financial Times that the partnership with Longi gives the United States the opportunity to “really catch up with technology.”
“A company in China is going to provide us with the technology and help us really get a foothold in manufacturing here,” he said.
The Inflation Reduction Act Biden signed in 2022 included billions of dollars in grants to produce clean energy technologies domestically and deploy them quickly. The incentives support buying local, but foreign manufacturers can benefit from tax credits if they open factories in the United States.
“At the end of the day, these Chinese companies are some of the best manufacturers in the world. . . Isolating U.S. factories from Chinese suppliers is virtually impossible at this point,” said Pol Lezcano, senior partner at consultancy BloombergNEF.
Longi is not alone: Some of China’s largest solar panel makers, including Jinko Solar and Trina Solar, have announced plans to build factories in the United States as Washington reviews tariffs on solar components and prepares to impose fines on companies that evaded customs duties by assembling solar products in the south. -East Asia, notably on Vina Solar, a subsidiary of Longi.
Licking County, which includes Pataskala, is at the forefront of the White House’s efforts to attract more high-tech manufacturing to the United States, with chipmaker Intel planning to build semi-automatic factories there. drivers worth $20 billion. This development helped push the unemployment rate to a record low of 2.7 percent.
As for the Illuminate USA factory, an opposition group called Not in Pataskala warned of a “red menace” and adopted a logo with an X behind a hammer and sickle.
State and local officials have reiterated that Illuminate USA is a U.S. company and have denied accusations about its ties to the Chinese government. Chicago-based Invenergy has the majority stake, owns the building and will be the primary customer for the panels. The company received $4 million in incentives from the state of Ohio and a 15-year tax abatement on property improvements.
“They have pitchforks, T-shirts and posters. They don’t want to listen to reason,” Pataskala Mayor Mike Compton said of plant opponents. Illuminate USA marks the largest manufacturing investment in the rural town’s history.
Jim Murphy, president of Invenergy, said the factory was an “opportunity” to “supply a growing market” for U.S.-made panels.
“Illuminate USA works on several levels. It meets growing demand, builds American solar manufacturing know-how, and creates hundreds of good-paying jobs in the United States,” Murphy said.
Other clean energy investments linked to China have encountered backlash, including two planned battery factories in Michigan and a wind farm in Texas. Concern has also extended to Washington: Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Carol Miller introduced legislation in December banning tax credits for Chinese companies.
“All Americans should pray that this bill passes the House and Senate and is signed into law by the president,” Pataskala resident Judy Kathmire said at the city council meeting.
Ashley Schapitl, a spokesperson for the US Treasury, said foreign investments were “subject to strict safeguards to ensure national security”. Chinese companies accounted for only 15 percent of all U.S. investment in solar production after the IRA passed, or 10 percent excluding Longi’s investment in Illuminate USA, a senior IRA official said. administration.
The IRA sparked a “renaissance in American manufacturing and a reversal of the well-documented trend of recent decades in which those jobs were moving overseas and primarily to Asia, and China in particular,” said Kristina Costa, IRA deputy assistant. president for innovation and implementation of clean energy.
Illuminate USA opens as a global glut of panels reduces profitability for solar power manufacturers. China doubled its capacity last year and produced three times global demand, the IEA estimated.
“Solar will probably be the energy source of the 21st century. There is a real battle to gain control of this energy source,” said Michael Carr, director of Solar Energy Manufacturers for America, a U.S. group seeking more trade protections. Sema, which does not include Chinese companies, fears that Chinese manufacturers in the United States could harm players by manipulating their well-established global supply chains.
Most U.S. solar factories have ties to China, regardless of the nationality of their owners. Even though the solar cells for Illuminate USA’s panels come from Malaysia and Vietnam, the company will purchase shipments of special tape that has so far only been available in China.
“Manufacturers trying to get glass, frames and other components outside of China still rely on Chinese equipment,” said Elissa Pierce, a solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie.
Longi will supply eight production lines to Illuminate USA, producing 1,000 panels per hour, which equates to five gigawatts of electricity generation capacity each year. The company sent about 60 Chinese contractors to Pataskala to train workers, and nearly two dozen Illuminate USA employees visited Longi’s factory in Jiangsu for five weeks in November to learn the trade.
“We just produce solar panels. There’s no other purpose behind it,” said Justin Barnhart, 21, an equipment engineer at Illuminate USA, who was on the trip to China. “[Longi] This helps us at first because we don’t really know what’s going on.
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