Suntech Power plans to announce in a few weeks the site of its first factory in the United States, and expects to start production in the first quarter of 2010, said Roger Efird, president of North American sales for Suntech Thursday.

The Chinese company has narrowed a list of potential sites to one on the East Coast and three on the West Coast, said Efird in an interview after his talk at the Edison Electric Institute's annual convention in San Francisco.

The final selection will depend largely on the economic incentives from state and local governments that are wooing Suntech.

"We are asking for the best economic packages now," Efird said. "Then we will narrow the list down to two next week."

For Suntech's part, the decision will depend on labor rates and other costs, as well as the education of the local workforce and the proximity of the factory to target markets, Efird said.

The factory would assemble solar cells produced at Suntech's manufacturing complex in China, he added. Solar cells are lighter to ship from China than complete solar panels, which are heavy because of the use of glass and aluminum.

The U.S. factory would have a production capacity of 100 megawatts per year and would employ about 300 people.

Suntech started talking about setting up a factory in the United States three years ago.

It decided to make that happen soon primarily because of a political push to use American-made products, Efird said. Last month, the company announced it would select a production site within six months.

"In this time of downturn in the economy, the politically correct thing to do, if you are a buyer, is to promote buying American," he said during his talk.

Suntech will follow several other European and Japanese solar companies that have set up manufacturing centers in the United States over the past year.

Germany-based Schott Solar recently opened a solar panel factory in New Mexico (see Scott Opens New Factory, Considers Biz Beyond Manufacturing). SolarWorld, also headquartered in Germany, opened a 150-megawatt solar cell factory in Oregon last fall (see Q&A: Will U.S. Become a Solar World?).

Sanyo from Japan announced last October that it would build a silicon ingot and wafer processing plant in Oregon.

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