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US Solar Manufacturing Tidbits: First Solar Plant Sale, SolarWorld Shuffles

Two more bits of news this week reiterate how unforgiving the solar PV manufacturing industry is: First Solar is finally giving up hope for its as-yet unused plant in Arizona, while SolarWorld reportedly is consolidating more operations and shaking up its top exec ranks.

First Solar Shuttering Idle Arizona Plant

First Solar says it is officially closing its new-but-unused thin-film solar PV module manufacturing plant in Mesa, Arizona. A network operations center and approximately 80 operations & management employees, which had occupied a portion of the facility, will be moved to the company's headquarters in Tempe about a half hour away. Manufacturing equipment still being stored there will be kept for potential future deployment at other plants, "to the extent First Solar determines in the future that market dynamics support additional module manufacturing." Everything must go, even the building's 3.3-MW (AC) rooftop PV array and a small ground-mounted PV test array.

This move has been a long time coming. The Mesa factory was announced to fanfare in 2011 as a big economic and employment boost, creating hundreds of new jobs and new life for an old GM vehicle testing site -- but it turned out to be a hallmark of unfortunate timing just prior to the solar manufacturing sector's overreach and crash. By 2012 the company was closing production lines in Germany, though it held out hope that idling Mesa was better than shutting it down, in case the market would rebound enough to support it.

What was promised as a $300 million investment in 250-MW of new module-making capacity now will be put up for sale netting an anticipated $100 million, with a $55-$65 million hit against First Solar's 3Q13 books plus another $5-10 million in associated costs through the rest of the year. On the upside, this will save the company around $10 million in annual operating expenditures; Deutsche Bank analyst Vishal Shah translates that into about 2-3 cents of earnings per quarter.

SolarWorld Continues Retrenching

Meanwhile, US solar manufacturing flag-bearer SolarWorld reportedly is retrenching further, rolling what's left of its Camarillo, California operations into its main operation in Hillsboro, Oregon as the company's restructuring efforts approach a finale. The Camarillo office has housed sales and marketing since 2011 when SolarWorld shuttered on-site manufacturing there. The company also reportedly has shaken up its management, replacing top exec Gordon Brinser and CFO Brent Jensen.

SolarWorld and Brinser have been the vocal leaders behind the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM) and the US vs. China solar trade battle, which continues to smolder despite occasional calls for compromise. Just days ago Helios USA, one of the other few U.S. solar panel manufacturers and vocal CASM member, closed its doors and filing for receivership.

Lead image: Organization chart with magnifier, via Shutterstock

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