Accurate descriptions of the U.S. clean energy market have always required a bit of nuance. Installations of solar panels, wind turbines and energy storage have routinely vaulted the U.S. to the top of global rankings of market size.

According to Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables’ most recent forecast, for example, the U.S. was set to install over 19 gigawatts of solar capacity in 2020, an increase of 43 percent over 2019, despite the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Manufacturing of the panels, turbines, inverters and other equipment that is installed across America is a different matter entirely. For example, even if every solar module produced domestically — which amounts to 7.5 gigawatts a year — were to be installed in the U.S., there would still be a need to import a lot of equipment.

And it’s not just solar. For example, WoodMac estimates that nearly 1 gigawatt of grid-scale energy storage has been installed over the past five years, and front-of-the-meter storage is expected to grow to more than 5 gigawatts by 2025. Yet the vast majority of cells that go into batteries today are made by manufacturers in Asia and imported to the U.S.

Still, U.S. manufacturing of clean energy equipment — and electric components generally — is gaining traction. Facilities from Washington to Florida are already producing solar panels, battery cells and other grid equipment, while others are in the planning stages. One driver is the scale of the market in both the U.S. and around the world. For example, Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts that solar, wind and batteries will attract $10 trillion in investments through 2050. In February, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $100 million for transformative clean-energy research and development with a focus on building domestic clean-energy supply chains and boosting American manufacturing in this sector. Billions more in investments are expected from the DOE in 2021 under the new Biden administration.

Siting manufacturing in the U.S. has the benefit of close geographic proximity to a major market — a potential advantage that was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, when global supply chains were strained by factory shutdowns. Insulation from Section 201 trade tariffs, the former Trump administration’s bulk power system executive order and other protective trade measures also factor into the decisions of manufacturers to locate facilities in the U.S.

Labor, proximity to customers are top site selection criteria

More than 15 years ago, GE Renewable Energy selected Pensacola, Florida as the location for its U.S.-based facility, where it manufactures onshore wind turbine components. The choice of the westernmost city on the Florida Panhandle was driven by multiple factors, including the ability to import materials to make turbine drivetrains, heads and hubs. “Nearby access to the port for incoming material is a key benefit,” said Momar Mattocks, executive plant manager at GE Renewable Energy’s Pensacola facility.

Also critical for the success of the Pensacola facility, which employs more than 700 people, is access to a pool of skilled workers. Since locating in Pensacola, GE Renewable Energy has forged a strong partnership with the University of West Florida. “Access to a skilled workforce is critical,” says Mattocks. “Assembly manufacturing knowledge [and] lean manufacturing principles are key to helping us deliver consistently for our customers.”  

Chicago-based S&C Electric Company (S&C) chose to open a manufacturing facility in West Palm Beach, Florida in 2015. Its proximity to the utility Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) was a significant reason behind the decision. FPL has long focused on implementing smart grid technology, investing over $5 billion since 2006 to make its grid smarter and more reliable. When it came time to find a location to produce its TripSaver II Cutout-Mounted Closers, a product designed to replace manually operated fuses, S&C saw a lot of benefits in being close to FPL’s headquarters in Juno Beach. “Being steps away from a major customer with a new facility making state-of-the-art products made a lot of sense to us,” said Jim Johnson, S&C’s chief operating officer.

Not only did FPL purchase and install 80,000 TripSaver II reclosers (which are also known as automated lateral switches), but a steady stream of FPL lineworkers and staff has also visited the S&C facility to learn more about the manufacturing process and to provide feedback about the product. “Especially with a new product like the TripSaver II recloser that needed to get buy-in from everyone, bringing folks in to open and close the device, play with it and ask questions really helped,” said Johnson.

The wisdom of having a mixture of domestic and international suppliers and manufacturing facilities has been reinforced as a result of COVID-19. “Must-haves for manufacturing are dual- and triple-sourcing and de-risking the supply chain and any dependency on manufacturing in one location,” said Johnson. “That is a major undertaking, and we have embraced the goal of removing risk by creating redundancy.”