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Report: Solar panel maker may build in Mesa

Sat, 02/19/2011 - 12:13pm
The Associated Press

A newspaper report says the world's second-largest solar panel manufacturer is considering building a factory in Mesa that would bring about 600 new jobs.

The report by The Arizona Republic said Tempe-based First Solar Inc. declined to confirm Mesa had been chosen. But the paper cited sources that said the panel maker is preparing to announce a deal while still working on terms.

First Solar has solar-panel factories in Ohio, Germany and Malaysia, with additional plants planned in France, Vietnam and possibly China.

The company announced in October that it planned to build two new manufacturing plants, one in the U.S. and the other in Vietnam.

First Solar spokesman Ted Meyer on Friday declined to confirm that the company is zeroing in on Mesa.

Mesa officials and members of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the region's lead economic-development group, declined to comment.

If the company is close to sealing a deal, an announcement likely will not come until after Thursday, when publicly traded First Solar reports its fourth-quarter earnings. Public companies have to be careful when they publicize developments that can move stock prices because of federal securities rules.

Roc Arnett, president of the East Valley Partnership, an economic-development group that promotes Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and other southeast Valley communities, said there are a number of vacant industrial spaces in the region that could house such a manufacturing plant. They include spots near Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in southeast Mesa, Chandler Municipal Airport in Chandler and the Falcon Field Airport in Mesa.

"If something like this does happen, you just know they are going to be the kind of good corporate citizens that Intel and Boeing have been for many years in the southeast Valley," he said.

Intel announced on Friday that it plans to build a new $5 billion factory that will create thousands of construction and manufacturing jobs in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler. The company already has a huge factory there that employs nearly 10,000 people.

First Solar, founded in 1999, has grown to become the world's second-largest solar manufacturer after Suntech Power Holdings Corp. of China. It has been searching for months for a U.S. site to build a 238-megawatt factory to open in 2012.

Solar-manufacturing plants are compared by the amount of megawatts produced by the panels they make, not by the number of panels.

First Solar has projected it will produce solar panels totaling 2,742 megawatts in 2012. The new U.S. factory would represent about 9 percent of its total manufacturing capacity that year. One megawatt can generate enough energy for about 250 homes at once in direct sunlight.

Jordan Rose, an attorney who represents several renewable-energy companies in Arizona, said most manufacturing has been done overseas because of lower production and labor costs there. Now that panels are getting cheaper to build because of increased manufacturing efficiencies, production can be moved back to the U.S.

First Solar's main competitor, Suntech Power Holdings, opened a small factory recently in Goodyear and plans to make 50 megawatts of solar panels a year and employ 150 people.

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