Qcells Announces a $2.5 Billion Investment to Build a “Complete Solar Supply Chain”

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Jan 11 2023 |
A rendering of the planned Qcells facility in Georgia. Image courtesy Qcells

President Biden called it “a win for workers, consumers, and our climate,” while Gov. Brian Kemp said he’s “excited for Qcells’ continued success in the Peach State.”

What a turnaround for America’s solar manufacturing industry.

South Korean company Qcells on Wednesday said it is spending $2.5 billion to create “the largest investment in U.S. solar history to build the nation’s only complete and sustainable solar supply chain.” If the company makes good on its plan — and given that it already operates the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere in Dalton, Ga., we’re hopeful about it — it will be a major step forward in the effort to build a clean energy future that will be Made in America.

Here are a few details from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which broke the news:

The company said it plans to break ground in the first quarter of this year on a new, 3.3-gigawatt plant an hour northwest of Atlanta near Cartersville and expand the capacity of its existing factory in Dalton by 2.1 gigawatts. The new production at both facilities is expected to be online by 2024 and bring 2,500 jobs to the state.

The new Cartersville factory will manufacture “3.3 gigawatts (GW) of solar ingots, wafers, cells, and finished panels,” according to Qcells. The company will also assemble an additional 2 gigawatts of solar panels at the Dalton facility, which is “expected to bring Qcells’ total solar panel production capacity in Georgia to 8.4-gigawatt by 2024.”

Wednesday’s announcement is so striking because just about six months ago, things looked pretty dire for American solar manufacturers. The industry was already struggling to survive in the face of surging unfairly traded imports, and then the White House announced it would pause tariffs on solar imports for two years, responding to a well-funded pressure campaign from importers.

But soon after, Congress actually managed to pass honest-to-goodness industrial policy in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was a shot in the arm for U.S. solar manufacturers. There’s been a whole host of new solar investments announced since the IRA’s passage, with solar makers citing the new law as the impetus for their future plans.

President Biden made sure to take a bit of a victory lap in a statement about the Qcells investment:

“Today’s Hanwha Q CELLS announcement to make the largest solar investment in U.S. history is a big deal for Georgia’s working families and the American economy. And, this investment is a direct result of my economic plan and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“Hanwha’s Q CELLS investment will create thousands of good-paying jobs in Georgia, many of which won’t require a four-year degree. It will bring back our supply chains so we aren’t reliant on other countries, lower the cost of clean energy, and help us combat the climate crisis. And, it will ensure that we manufacture cutting-edge, solar technology here at home. It’s a win for workers, consumers, and our climate.

“Under my leadership, the United States can and will lead the world in manufacturing once again.”

We were fairly critical of Biden’s decision to delay tariffs at the time it happened — especially since a preliminary Commerce Department investigation later concluded that four companies are indeed circumventing duties already in place by shipping their Made in China products through Southeast Asian countries.

But there’s no doubt that the IRA is a game changer. The QCells announcement is huge news on its own, since it will mean that the U.S. will not only have production capabilities to assemble finished solar panels, but an ability to make many of the parts that go into the panels. Given the hold that China currently has on the global solar manufacturing industry — and given the growing evidence that its solar industry is reliant on forced Uyghur labor to make its products — it is essential that the U.S. do everything it can to build a domestic solar manufacturing base that will allow us to achieve clean energy independence.

That simply will not happen without industrial policy like the IRA. But don’t take our word for it; Qcells said as much:

“Qcells investments across the full solar value chain follow the passage of the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act within the Inflation Reduction Act. This new investment on the federal level is critical to providing certainty for investors to go bold on clean energy. The demand for American-made solar panels is increasing rapidly driven by the efforts to ensure energy independence, and Qcells’ domestic manufacturing expansion will fulfill the growing need for these clean energy solutions.”

The two Georgia senators behind the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act made a point to tout the economic benefits of the Qcells investment. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D), who introduced the legislation, noted his “goal remains to make Georgia the world leader in advanced energy production,” while original cosponsor Sen. Reverend Raphael Warnock (D) said he’s “proud to have helped lead the fight to make Georgia a top state for good-paying, clean energy jobs.”

The excitement in Georgia is bipartisan. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp pointed out it’s the second time in less than a year that Qcells has announced an expansion, adding that he’s “excited for Qcells’ continued success in the Peach State.”

There are a lot more statements from government folks out about the Qcells news, because it really is a big deal! But, policymakers should not convince themselves that their work is done. The industrial policy that began in 2022 with the IRA and CHIPS and Science Act should be viewed as the first step, not the last word, in rebuilding America’s critical manufacturing base.

And don’t forget about trade enforcement. The Chinese Communist Party has long had plans to dominate solar production, and isn’t going to set those plans aside just because of a handful of new solar factories in the United States. It’s not just China, either; other countries are likely to try to skirt U.S. trade laws to send cheap imports onto U.S. shores and undermine American producers.

And that’s why the two-year pause on tariffs ends in June 2024, the Biden administration should not extend it. After all, the explanation given for the pause was that the United States didn’t have enough domestic production capabilities to meet its climate goals. Efforts by Qcells and other American solar manufacturers solves that problem and puts the United States on a path toward clean energy independence.