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5 min.

What It Will Take to Shore Up Domestic Solar Manufacturing

Solar operating capacity in the U.S. is projected to grow by 145% over the next five years. It’s the leading technology in the clean power development pipeline. But as solar project developers look to accelerate their momentum, they've been met with trade restrictions, regulatory shifts and logistics disruptions that put their supply chains at risk. These challenges, combined with Inflation Reduction Act incentives, have created more demand than ever for solar panels manufactured in the U.S.

Currently there are only 7 GW of production capacity for solar modules, 3 GW for solar cells and 0 GW for ingots and wafers in the U.S. In other words, the race is on to fill an enormous supply gap. American solar supply chains will need to solidify and scale rapidly to meet demand as the industry simultaneously overcomes a significant learning curve. At 3SUN USA, we’re focused on reshoring solar cell and module production, but we believe our approach can serve as a blueprint for scaling other aspects of the solar supply chain — and even other clean energy manufacturing applications.

As we roll out plans to build our solar manufacturing facility in Oklahoma, we’re rooting our strategy in industrial automation and efficiency, local skilled workforce development, and sustainable construction and operations. Producing the next generation of solar technology won’t come from traditional industrial factories, like many Americans may picture. Industry players need to embrace these three tenets to effectively and responsibly shore up the future of domestic solar manufacturing.

Technology: Components and Industrial Innovation

To successfully fill solar supply chain gaps, we have to look beyond just solar modules, which are the focus of most manufacturing projects announced in the U.S. to date. There are several other critical components that go into producing solar panels domestically. And, we have to produce quality products, quickly by leveraging the latest and greatest technologies.

We’ve designed our factory for fully integrated solar cell and module manufacturing, and we’re striving to make a product with components sourced as much as possible in America. This is not only important to reduce buyers’ supply chain risk, but it’s also the most efficient way to produce a high-quality solar module. And it wouldn’t be possible without advanced manufacturing equipment, processes and software.

Our cell and module production lines will operate side-by-side 24/7, fully connected through automation. Preserving a solar cell’s performance requires that we limit its time in an open-air environment after manufacturing. It should be sealed and encapsulated inside the solar module immediately, which is only possible through advanced, automated machinery. We’ll also apply AI to optimize each piece of equipment and the production line as a whole.

Up-and-coming solar manufacturing projects in the U.S. will need to leverage cutting-edge production technologies to achieve greater efficiency, reduce resource consumption and reach economies of scale. And to properly meet demand, we’ll need more manufacturers to invest in the production of less-prevalent American components, like solar cells and the silicon ingots and wafers used to make them.

People: Local Skilled Workforce Development

Solar manufacturing jobs are estimated to grow to about 120,000 workers by 2033, more than triple today’s number. With the green workforce already facing a talent shortage, it’s critical that employers take a hands-on approach to their hiring and workforce development, so we can properly scale up domestic supply as an industry. This will be especially important in high-tech solar production, where manufacturing jobs won’t resemble those of the past.

As Head of 3SUN USA Giovanni Bertolino explains, “With our factory being advanced, automated manufacturing, the entire production line will require highly skilled operators and technicians who understand the process and can manage and maintain the best equipment on the market.”

To train up the talent we’ll need, we plan to work closely with workforce and education partners across Oklahoma, such as career techs, universities and local tribal nations, to help establish and expand reskilling and workforce training opportunities.

For those manufacturers mapping out their talent strategies: strongly consider a high level of community involvement. Hiring locally supports rural economies, builds livelihoods and provides well-paying job opportunities that might otherwise not exist for local populations. We view our project as an opportunity to retain Oklahoma’s talent and keep Oklahomans working in Oklahoma. Our factory is expected to create 1,000 high-quality permanent jobs by 2025. And to do that, we recognize the need to create training programs now.

Environment: Sustainable Construction and Operations

More than $270 billion of investment for clean energy projects and manufacturing facilities was announced following the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Of these, nearly 100 major construction projects are set to break ground over the next several years. These projects will need to balance speed and urgency with environmentally and socially responsible development practices. As an industry, it would be counterintuitive to discount sustainability concerns when scaling up a clean energy supply chain in the U.S.

Sustainability is inspiring all of the design choices we’re making to deliver our factory and our product. Beginning with construction, we plan to maintain strict sustainability standards for every aspect of the process. To us, that means minimizing our carbon footprint, reducing resource waste and water usage, and avoiding high-emissions transportation as much as possible.

Then, once we move into full operation, we’ll continue many of these same practices, while also powering the factory with 100% renewable electricity. There are a few ways to achieve this, and we’re using a combination of strategies. First and foremost, we’ll have rooftop solar modules at the facility to generate clean power right on site. To fill in any gaps, we’re working with the local utility to contract additional supply.

It might be tempting for manufacturers to cut sustainability corners in an attempt to reduce costs or beat the competition to market, but the most enduring players will achieve operational- and cost-efficiency without sacrificing climate progress.


Building a Repeatable Success Story

If we can create a sustainable and transparent system for domestic solar manufacturing, everyone benefits. Together, we can solve for supply chain gaps, meet growing solar demand, produce quality products that generate the clean energy we need and create well-paying jobs along the way. The energy transition requires collaboration, innovation and thoughtful action. As an industry, we have an unprecedented opportunity to define the future of U.S. clean energy manufacturing. Let’s make sure we’re setting a gold standard.