This Solar Plant Closed Five Years Ago. Now it is Reopening, Thanks to Industrial Policy

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Oct 11 2023 |
Workers install solar panels. Getty Images

Suniva is restarting and upgrading its solar cell manufacturing facility in Georgia, an outcome that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.

Things looked pretty dire for Suniva back in 2017.

That was the year that the solar cell manufacturer filed for bankruptcy, citing illegal dumping of cheap solar panels in the U.S. by Chinese manufacturers.

Suniva wasn’t the only American solar manufacturer that found itself unable to compete against China’s predatory trade practices, of course, as the U.S. solar manufacturing industry essentially collapsed in the 2010s.

Two decades ago, the United States made 22% of the world’s solar panels. By 2021, it made just 1%.

But Suniva managed to put up a fight, filing a major trade case that sought relief. Fellow manufacturer SolarWorld joined the case. Despite significant pushback from importers, the International Trade Commission issued a favorable ruling, and tariffs on solar cells and modules were put into place by the Trump administration.

The damage, however, had been done. While the tariffs helped what was left of the domestic solar manufacturing industry to stabilize, for Suniva, it was too little, too late. It looked like the end of the company.

Flash forward to Tuesday:

Solar cell manufacturer Suniva plans to reopen a shuttered Norcross factory and create as many as 240 jobs amid a surge of new tax incentives aimed at shoring up the U.S. green energy manufacturing supply chain.

The company closed the factory and filed for bankruptcy in 2017 after falling victim to plunging prices for solar power cells and a crush of cheaper Chinese-made solar imports.

But now it stands to benefit from a wave of federal incentives and other tax breaks embedded in sweeping green energy measures signed into law by President Joe Biden and backed by U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

That’s right: Suniva, long left for dead in the solar industry and cited by obnoxious talking heads as an example of why tariffs are bad and why the U.S. should just give up on manufacturing, is making a comeback — in a big way.

And it’s happening because there’s been a combination of trade enforcement and industrial policy to encourage domestic manufacturing in a sector that will be critical to future U.S. energy independence.

After Suniva came out of bankruptcy, it was purchased by New York investment company Lion Point Capital. Earlier this year, Suniva received a $110 million financing commitment from New York investment fund Orion Infrastructure Capital (OIC) to fund the reopening and expansion of the Norcross plant.

None of this would have happened without good policy.

Suniva President Matt Card told Reuters that the tariffs helped U.S. solar panel production over the last five years, adding that the incentives for domestic production included in the Inflation Reduction Act are what gave Suniva the final boost it needed to start making solar cells again.

Reuters notes:

Projects using panels containing domestically-produced cells will be able to qualify for an IRA tax credit worth 10% of a facility’s cost for using American-made equipment. That “bonus” would be on top of a 30% tax credit for renewable energy facilities.

Restarting solar cell production isn’t just good for Suniva — it’s also critical to the effort to rebuild and strengthen America’s domestic solar manufacturing capabilities. There is currently no U.S. supply of solar cells, meaning that Suniva may end up playing a vital role in lessening U.S. reliance on China for our clean energy needs, which is especially critical given the use of forced labor in China’s solar supply chain.

Suniva notes on its website that its “U.S.-made monocrystalline cells are the backbone of any solar project compliant with Buy-America or Domestic Content Bonus Investment Tax Credits regulations. Solar modules containing Suniva cells have among the highest percentages of U.S. content in the industry.”

“The solar cell is the essential component in solar energy generation. Today’s announcement is the first step in rebuilding solar cell manufacturing in the United States, which will bolster our country’s energy independence and security,” Card said in a statement. “This next chapter in Suniva’s story builds upon those successes while contributing to the goal of a robust, self-sufficient solar supply chain for our country.”