Trina Solar president explains their path forward in U.S. solar market

Trina Solar trucks Dallas

2024 is a big year for Trina Solar in the United States. The shining example is the new 1.35 million sq ft solar PV manufacturing facility in Wilmer, Texas, expected to be completed later in the year. The company is investing more than $200 million in property and equipment, and it will produce higher power Vertex modules.

Trina Solar’s solid position in the market goes beyond ribbon-cutting though.  We chatted with Steven Zhu, president of Trina Solar U.S, at the end of 2023, to reflect on Trina’s long-term strategy, how it is paying off this decade, and just generally how he sees the U.S. solar industry in 2024.

Delivering on U.S. supply

Trina Solar has a sizable chunk of the global solar market – around 15% to 20% – and Zhu says to continue doing that, considering the growth expected in the U.S. solar market thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), they had to set up more U.S. operations “in order to match that 20%,” in the coming decade.

Trina considered U.S. expansion in 2015, when “IRA” still only stood for individual retirement account.  However, company leadership found “the cost was high and also the supply chain was too far away,” Zhu tells us, which led them to Thailand and Vietnam instead.

“You know, the factory itself is easy,” he explains. “But it’s our habit to build an ecosystem around us. If we’re going to have a factory, we’re going to start to move the supply chain there — not all for the purpose of domestic content, which obviously can help, but it’s also for the supply chain security and stability. Sometimes you’re shipping thousands of different BOMs over a distant area, and it doesn’t make sense.”

Relatedly, this is why Trina plans to roll out a new fleet of Trina-branded trucks to deliver its PV modules for utility-scale solar projects in the U.S. This step marks the first phase in Trina’s fleet strategy, with the company to commence the electrification of its delivery fleet in 2024. The company currently uses Trina Trucks to deliver materials for more than 35% of its utility projects. By the end of 2024, Trina Solar will complete 100% of its utility project deliveries via Trina Truck, with full electrification coming by 2026.

Module market overview

We’ve discussed the 2023 module surplus several times in our Power Forward! discussion series with BayWa r.e. To recap:

In 2023, several Tier 1 solar module brands started downsizing because of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (ULFPA) detention process (to be clear: not because the products necessarily run afoul of the sanctions, but because of how long the due diligence / detention process was taking). Meanwhile, lesser-known solar module brands, that were not yet being detained by Customs, were able to import and sell solar modules at a lower price.

“We spend millions of dollars to build our system to be able to provide traceability documents within days. It used to take months,” Zhu says, noting that Trina has been sourcing 100% non-China polysilicon in overseas markets like the United States since 2021. Trina also opened another solar wafer production facility in Vietnam last year. 

Zhu thinks the situation will be different in 2024 and favor Tier 1 brands that have their compliant supply chains set up and their documentation in order:

  • For one, Customs officials are more familiar with the bill of materials (BOM) for the Tier 1 solar modules that started the UFLPA detention process. So, some of those shipments are moving through faster. At the same time, CBP has started detaining other modules.
  • Second, the 24-month moratorium on new AD/CVD tariffs expires in June. Once the new anti-circumvention tariffs kick in, CBP will be inspecting the BOM for every solar module shipment from Southeast Asia.

“The majority of Tier 1 customers understand those Tier 2 brands are opportunistic,” Zhu says. “When the market is down, they will be gone and then leave your product up on the roof, possibly without the service and warranty for the project life. Some smaller installers maybe don’t understand this, or they just care that this price is super attractive, so why don’t I just buy something and make the deal happen. But that doesn’t last forever.”

Delivering on U.S. supply

Trina Solar has a sizable chunk of the global solar market – around 15 to 20% – and Zhu says to continue doing that, considering the growth expected in the U.S. solar market thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), they had to set up more U.S. operations “in order to match that 20%,” in the coming decade.

Trina considered U.S. expansion in 2015, when “IRA” still only stood for individual retirement account.  However, company leadership found “the cost was high and also the supply chain was too far away,” Zhu tells us, which led them to Thailand and Vietnam instead.

“You know, the factory itself is easy,” he explains. “But it’s our habit to build an ecosystem around us. If we’re going to have a factory, we’re going to start to move the supply chain there — not all for the purpose of domestic content, which obviously can help, but it’s also for the supply chain security and stability. Sometimes you’re shipping thousands of different BOMs over a distant area, and it doesn’t make sense.”

This is why Trina plans to roll out a new fleet of Trina-branded trucks to deliver its PV modules for utility-scale solar projects in the U.S. This step marks the first phase in Trina’s fleet strategy, with the company to commence the electrification of its delivery fleet in 2024. The company currently uses Trina Truck to deliver materials for more than 35% of its utility projects. By the end of 2024, Trina Solar will complete 100% of its utility project deliveries via Trina Truck, with full electrification coming by 2026.

The rise of 210 mm

Trina Solar long ago standardized on the 210 mm PV wafer size when many manufacturers gravitated to 182 mm, because the 210 mm is not as easy to get up and running.

“When I joined Trina in 2005, we used like 13 grams or 15 grams of polysilicon to produce 1 W,” Zhu says. “Module efficiency was like 8% or 9%. Technology evolutions have caused the cost to drop significantly. If you only count on the material cost dropping, it’s very limited. But if the efficiency is increasing, now it’s like 2 grams or so of poly per Watt. So, of course it helps to use less materials, but your efficiency is higher. That’s the biggest push for the cost drop.”

Trina’s commitment to 210 mm is now paying off, and it is leading a standardization effort with other manufacturers committed to 210 mm. The 700 W+ Photovoltaic Open Innovation Ecological Alliance launched on Dec. 15 and includes Trina Solar, Astronergy, Canadian Solar, Risen Energy, TCL Zhonghuan and Tongwei. The initiative, which calls for all PV companies to promote standardization of module dimensions and the industrialization of ultra-high-power and ultra-high-efficiency modules, will push the industry one step further toward industrializing 700W+ PV modules. The six manufacturers have proposed that 700 W modules in all PV companies should adhere to existing agreed industry dimensions:

  • module size: 2,384 mm x 1,303 mm.
  • module long-side vertical hole distance: 400 mm/1,400 mm.
  • and a hole distance of 790 mm has been added to the standard.

Agreements on such specs that start to get closer to an industry “standard” will lead to further efficiencies downstream with balance of system (BOS) providers.

What’s next?

The rise of the vertically integrated system provider is underway, and Trina was an early mover here too. Trina acquired Nclave’s solar tracker in 2018 (now the Trina Tracker), and started its move into energy storage in 2021. In 2023, Trina Storage ranked among global top 5 storage providers and integrators in the Energy Storage System Cost Survey 2023 report issued by BloombergNEF.

The surface-level benefit here is selling a customer two or three things instead of one, but Zhu sees greater benefits for the overall industry.

“We’re not trying to compete components-wise. It’s about adding more value,” he says. “A customer has the choice to buy from different players, but with our Total Solution, we’re going to make sure from the design that our module is the best fit for our tracker, and that it is compatible with our storage system. That value can be lost when a customer utilizes multiple suppliers.

“Same with supply chain management,” Zhu says. “Customers end up buying modules three months ahead of time, and have to warehouse them, based on tracker supply. A lot of money and time and energy are wasted during this.”

Said another way: PV component pricing will likely not get meaningfully lower than it is right now. Thus, solar’s next frontier in terms of value can only come via consolidation, integration, streamlined supply and lower levelized cost of energy (LCOE) over any system’s lifetime.

“That cannot only be done by one component vendor. It has to get everybody involved,” Zhu says.

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