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Startup aims to transform US solar manufacturing

Startup solar company Violet Power said it is opening a plant in Washington state that will "re-imagine U.S. solar manufacturing" by bringing together the industry's entire value chain, from polysilicon to panels, in one location.

Solar panel factories started popping up in the U.S. after the Trump administration imposed new import tariffs in 2018. However, while companies were willing to assemble panels here, they opted to continue importing cells, the components that turn sunlight into electricity, leaving the domestic industry dependent on overseas factories and international supply chains.

Violet Power is looking to change that, beginning with a plant in Moses Lake, Wash., that is across the street from REC Silicon ASA, a polysilicon producer hobbled by the yearslong trade fight between Washington and Beijing.

The two companies do not yet have a formal relationship, Violet Power CEO Charlie Gay said in an interview Sept. 8. But "as we scale up and get to larger volumes, hopefully there could be a large enough supply opportunity here that REC could be a provider of silicon for our operations."

REC Silicon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company has been pushing the Trump administration for assistance, arguing that polysilicon, a raw material used in semiconductors, solar panels and batteries, should be viewed as a strategic material by the U.S. as the country tries to compete with China.

"There are currently no vertically-integrated U.S. [photovoltaic] panel manufacturers to meet the growing global demand for solar power," Gay said in a news release. In addition to lost economic opportunities, there are "serious concerns over supply chain self-reliance and electric grid security, which can be best addressed with control of the entire value chain," Gay said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Violet Power's plans will support "the continued development of a complete solar manufacturing supply chain with REC Silicon and others."

REC Silicon is one of three large polysilicon producers with U.S. plants. The others are Hemlock Semiconductor Corp. in Michigan and Wacker Chemie AG, a German producer with a factory in Tennessee. Violet Power also may buy silicon ingots from Europe, Gay said.

If successful, Violet Power would serve as a rebuttal to companies that told the U.S. International Trade Commission in 2019 that it is not viable to make cells and other components of solar panels in the U.S. The United States lacks the kinds of incentives that attracted manufacturers to parts of Asia, SunPower Corp. Chairman and CEO Tom Werner said.

Violet Power, which Gay said is privately funded and is not receiving government incentives, is initially targeting 500 MW of cell and module manufacturing capacity in Washington, and there is room in its current building to expand to 1,000 MW of wafer, cell and module capacity. Eventually, Violet Power hopes to develop 5,000 MW of manufacturing capacity on the site. Manufacturing is expected to start in 2021.

To help cut costs, Violet Power is partnering with a company called SunFlex Solar, whose panels use aluminum foil instead of silver and copper.

"We're using advanced technology that isn't in place elsewhere around the world," Gay said. "It's the next thing."