President Trump promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. Whether he has delivered on that pledge is a complicated question.
The U.S. added about half a million manufacturing jobs from 2016 to 2019, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis released in August. But those gains are in alignment with general trends of growth in manufacturing jobs in the last decade. And from a wider view, the U.S. has lost more than 4 million of those jobs since 1997. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the downward trend.
The picture inside the solar industry is equally complex: While the industry estimates it has lost more than 100,000 of all types of jobs due to the pandemic and Trump’s Section 201 tariffs, companies have also opened up new module plants totaling 3 gigawatts of capacity during his presidency. A few smaller-scale module plants have also closed.
Trump's Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, argues that he can do better. His campaign recently debuted a $2 trillion clean-energy plan aimed in part at growing U.S. manufacturing.
It's within that environment that the U.S.' newest solar manufacturer emerged. Last week, Oregon-based Violet Power announced plans to begin manufacturing cells and modules in Washington state in 2021.
In a market where solar equipment is often imported and even many domestic manufacturers are headquartered in other countries, Violet Power — a company firmly rooted in the U.S. — is a notable addition.
If Violet succeeds in its strategy to build local wafer, cell and module capacity, it will be a significant boost to U.S. solar manufacturing at a time when politicians, environmental activists and industry veterans are all encouraging such growth.
If Violet Power’s ambitions become reality, its modules would be the end product of an almost entirely U.S.-based supply chain.
The company leased a building in Moses Lake, Washington across the street from REC Silicon's mothballed polysilicon plant. REC Silicon is based in Norway but produces all of its solar-grade polysilicon in the U.S., aside from its 15 percent ownership in a joint venture in China. But REC's Washington facility shut down in 2019. For years, the company has been caught up in trade disputes. REC says import duties placed on polysilicon shipped to China, the world’s largest market, make it impossible for it to compete.
Violet told Greentech Media it currently has no formal relationship with REC, but its proximate location indicates the two are likely to work together if REC can restart production. Charlie Gay, Violet's CEO, said the startup hopes to “help the process by being a good customer.”
Gay, who used to direct the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and head the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, also told Greentech Media he has a “special affinity” for the fluidized bed reactor technique that REC Silicon uses.
Over time, Violet plans to ramp its factory to 5 gigawatts, offering a potentially significant new customer for REC. For reference, the U.S. currently has about 7.5 gigawatts of module capacity, according to Wood Mackenzie. Violet plans to split its overall capacity between crystalline ingots, wafers, cells and modules, making it the only manufacturer doing so in the United States.
The U.S.-made philosophy also extends to Violet's module technology. SunFlex Solar, a startup out of Arizona State University that recently won DOE’s “American-Made” solar prize, will partner with Violet on scaling its aluminum-foil-focused technology — which reduces metal costs — for back-contact cells. SunFlex combines “the reliability and cost of PERC modules” with “the efficiency of back-contacted modules,” according to founder Zachary Holman.
Violet is targeting efficiencies higher than the average for the p-type monocrystalline PERC technology. Higher efficiencies will likely mean higher costs. California’s SunPower, another prominent maker of interdigitated back-contact products, recently split from its manufacturing arm, which produces equipment in Asia and Mexico.
“The biggest challenge for any new solar manufacturing entrance is how [to] strike a balance between good module performance and cost,” said Xiaojing Sun, a senior solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie. “There’s a long road for Violet Power’s technology to become...widely adopted in the utility sector.”
Violet plans to start by selling its premium modules for residential applications in the U.S. and Europe. As it scales up and lowers the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of its technology, Gay sees an entrance into power plant applications and bifacial production. The company is offering a 50-year product warranty and guaranteeing 85 percent of initial power output in its last year, which suggests a customer would hypothetically be able to get more years of use from their initial investment.
“[Violet’s] strongest differentiator is around that 50-year warranty, getting to the low LCOE that allows, and being able to maintain that competitive edge in the longer haul by being close to the sources of the next generations of technology,” said Gay.
It’s an exceedingly ambitious vision. The journey to a successful solar factory based in the U.S. has numerous failures lining the road, such as Suniva, SolarWorld, SpectraWatt and Solyndra.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a shot, though, and the political landscape is shifting. The involvement of Gay, an industry veteran with strong political ties, will help. The company’s president and founder, Desari Strader, has experience lobbying for protectionist trade policies as head of government affairs at SolarWorld.
“With REC struggling, we’re getting worse and worse in terms of how comprehensive and robust the solar supply chain is in the U.S.,” said WoodMac's Sun. “But if Violet Power can pull [it] off…that is a significant boost to the solar manufacturing ecosystem. At least it’s preserving the hope that if the business and political environment is right, this industry could re-shore back to the U.S.”
The politics of solar manufacturing
With an expected online date in 2021 for its factory, it’s unclear what political environment Violet Power will be stepping into.
Donald Trump has made moves to protect U.S. solar manufacturers, but largely by punishing those that make their products overseas. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has laid out a wide-reaching clean-energy plan that includes significant investments in research and development and promises to develop clean-energy supply chains.
Those political machinations are not happening in a vacuum. The Green New Deal, a federal resolution introduced in February 2019 based on a movement that’s been building even longer, has outlined a climate policy vision for the United States that leans on industrial policy and supports the shift to clean energy with manufacturing meant to maximize the creation of well-paying, unionized jobs.
Biden has some experience with those concepts; under Obama, he helped engineer the clean-energy support embedded in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But the Democratic nominee’s notable shift to the left on climate policies demonstrates the significant traction the Green New Deal has won. Many of its policies, however, would require acts of Congress in order to be implemented.
Violet Power is betting on U.S. manufacturing without those policies in place or clarity on the election outcome. Gay, whose tenure at the Department of Energy overlapped with the tail end of the Obama administration and nearly three years of Trump, said the outcome won't slow Violet down.
“The importance of domestic manufacturing is something that either the Trump administration or a Biden potential administration would welcome,” he said.