Universal Solar is bringing a solar PV module manufacturing facility online in Panama before the end of 2022. This isn’t quite domestic solar module supply, but the Central America location is certainly more conveniently located to serve U.S. solar customers — shipments from the plant will reach any U.S. port in approximately five days — and it is free of any future tariffs and other supply issues tied to Asian imports.
“Modules made in the Americas will bypass many of the constraints afflicting the U.S. solar industry today, in particular supply issues related to Asian manufacturers,” states Chief Executive Officer and Founder John Berecki. “These constraints include existing tariffs and the threat of additional tariffs; COVID-related factory closures, shipping delays and price hikes; and the federal ban on products containing silicon sourced from Hoshine, China.”
Berecki and the Universal team began working on this over a year ago after procuring modules among other services for a few years. “Manufacturing our own module was a natural evolution,” he says. Berecki was previously president of U.S. development at Chint and prior to that president of Boviet Solar USA.
Why Panama? Despite the two-year pause on new tariffs, the long-term risks remain. Developers in this recent survey from LevelTen Energy said as much in regard to PPA prices. Indeed, Universal chose this facility in the Colón Logistics Park located in the Colón Container Terminal CCT in Colón, Republic of Panama because of its strategic location and because it is exempt from tariffs like those affecting modules out of Asia.
“We looked at a lot of locations including Europe, Mexico and the U.S.,” Berecki tells us. “We chose Panama because of its strategic location – every container and product headed to the Pacific US goes through Panama – and because of the current trade agreement, it is exempt from tariffs like those affecting modules out of Asia.”
The U.S. has a long-standing Free Trade Agreement with Panama, and Panama is an example of “near-shoring” in which U.S. businesses locate some or all of their operations in countries close to home. This also means no Section 201 Tariffs.
“Modules from Central America will give U.S. developers a much-needed alternative,” Bereckis said.
Universal Solar is taking orders for modules now, with delivery expected in the fourth quarter of 2022. The company has already signed Master Service Agreements for more than 400 megawatts (MW) of modules, and is negotiating an additional 175 MW, which would account for nearly all of the factory’s 600-MW first-line capacity.
Universal Solar’s Panama manufacturing plant is comprised of 200,000 square feet in a state-of-the-art facility with equipment sourced from OEMs. Equipment is being purchased and installed, up to 50 employees are being hired, and a grand opening is scheduled for the fall.
Module assembly or cells too? “We will have full manufacturing capability at the Panama factory and will be manufacturing, not merely assembling, the modules there,” Bereckis tells us. “Our modules will be stamped ‘Made in Panama’ and the Certificate of Origin will say they are products of Panama. Initially we will procure completed cells so we can start manufacturing immediately but we are in the process of procuring raw wafers to process those wafers into cells for the long-term supply of our modules.”
The company assures that its modules will be 100 percent-compliant with the U.S. Commerce Department’s withhold and release order (WRO) on Hoshine silicon, but could not disclose its specific sources “due to high volume market demand on raw materials.”
Modules at a glance | The first module lines to be produced will range from 350 to 545 watts. All will be high-efficiency (20.04 to 21.46 percent), low-LID, mono PERC and some will feature half-cell technology. Universal Solar will offer a 25- to 30-year linear power output warranty and a 12- to 15-year material and workmanship warranty.
Universal Solar America provides modules as well as procurement, development and financing services to large commercial and utility-scale solar developers, EPCs and other large-volume buyers of solar modules. They will not be selling through distribution.
“The sales already completed are in the utility/large commercial and residential sectors and that’s what we see as our main markets,” Bereckis says. “We are currently offering the 400W module for resi and 545W for utility-scale. We will also have the ability to produce a 460 W bifacial for mid-market commercial and small industrial.”
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