Season 5, Post 35: The sun always shines in Ohio
With a population of just 25,000 and located over an hour’s drive from the nearest airport, few people have an obvious reason to visit Perrysburg, Ohio. However, less than two weeks ago your author was down in Ohio. The reason: a chance to visit the largest solar manufacturing complex in the western hemisphere. Opportunities such as these do not come along every day.
At 2m square feet in size, the facility (owned by First Solar) is an impressive site to behold. We were not allowed to take any photographs, but to get an impression of its scale, consider that the complex is equivalent to more than 30 football pitches. A typical ‘big box’ warehouse used by a retailer is around a fifth of the size of First Solar’s plant. Rather than walk, golf buggies were used to ferry us around the facility.
The complex was described to us as “a model of 21st Century high volume manufacturing.” It operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year, with employees working in 4 shifts. A sheet of glass that enters the production line in Perrysburg can be transformed within less than 4 hours into a completed module, available for flash-testing before being packaged and ready for shipment. Somewhere in the world (First Solar also operates plants in India, Malaysia and Vietnam) a completed panel will roll off its production lines every 1.2 seconds.
On our tour, the level of plant automation was what stood out most. For a plant of this size, around 120 employees are needed for each shift. Much of the (literal) heavy lifting is done by robots. It was indeed a mesmerising sight to watch banks of machines working in harmony to move panels around. Much of the equipment within the Perrysburg site, we were told, was custom designed by partners with whom First Solar may have had relationships dating back many years. AI and machine learning received an obligatory mention too. Some of the machines are apparently self-learning, able to spot faults and perform predictive maintenance.
Renewable energy is a hot topic with demand to run for many years. Since the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was passed last year, over 50 new or expanded solar projects have been announced in the US. The Solar Energy Industry Association correspondingly estimates that by 2026 the US solar ecosystem will be over 15 times its pre-IRA size. If such forecasts come to fruition, then expect more mega solar factories to be built. Beyond Ohio, First Solar has already announced expansion plans into Alabama and Louisiana.
21 September 2023
The above does not constitute investment advice and is the sole opinion of the author at the time of publication. Heptagon Capital is an investor in First Solar. The author of this piece has no personal direct investment in the business. Past performance is no guide to future performance and the value of investments and income from them can fall as well as rise.
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