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First Solar CEO: Getting rid of Trump tariffs would pose challenges


China’s solar industry monopoly took a hit earlier this month when a new Ohio-based solar panel factory was announced.

First Solar, the only US-headquartered major manufacturer of solar panels, is investing $680 million investment into the factory, and its technology is not dependent on the Chinese at all, according to CEO Mark Widmar.

First Move’s Julia Chatterley spoke to Widmar Thursday.

Why don’t you rely on Chinese technology?

Mark Widmar: We started the company 20 years ago, and we did it with the premise that we wanted to create next generation technology, something that would enable the journey we were going to get ready to embark upon and was going to be many decades to come in order to achieve the long-term goals, and we have a semiconductor, and that’s different than what the Chinese use. We focused on innovation and we have been able to create two sheets of glass and a semiconductor based on a couple different compounds, and it’s not dependent on Chinese.

Yeah, it’s recyclable. Explain this part of the puzzle, too.

Mark Widmar: Yeah, so we founded a company on the premise of a circular economy, so two of the primary materials we use – one is a by-product of copper and one is a by-product of zinc. We started our recycling capabilities over a decade ago. When a product does reach its end of life, we recover over 90% of the materials that went into the product and 100% of the semiconductor and use it for new production.

What does this mean in terms of cost to the consumer, relative to other forms of technology?

Mark Widmar: Yeah, so if you think about it, early on, really people were not procuring this, and we are improving the performance of the technology, and we are the cheapest and lowest cost form of this generation in many markets, so you have an opportunity where if you think about where we started, the vision of the industry was around liberation, and they would say pretty much anywhere in the world you would have a good wind resource or solar resource, and now you got it to an inflexion point and that’s the cheapest cost.

What would it mean for your investment if tariffs on Chinese solar panels are removed?

Mark Widmar: It could create challenges. If we talk about tariffs, let’s talk about tariffs just for a moment. To me, tariffs had a purpose to the extent that, look, we all believe in tree trade, right, and we also want to ensure fair trade to the extent there’s not fair trade, and the Chinese heavily subsidize strategic materials. As it relates to the corporate tax, and when we made the decision a little over two years ago to expand it, part of it was because of the corporate tax rate, and that moved down from 35% to 21%. To the extent that the corporate tax rate would increase, go back to 25%, maybe 28%, it would have some inflection points and headwinds towards the decision we made and where we are right now. We focused on how do we create the next-gen technology for us. It will be the next gen product, so higher efficiency and higher performing and lower costs and drive down not only the cost of making the technology module but also balance system costs. We believe we’re in a position where we can sustain headwinds such as a removal of tariffs and an increase in corporate tax rates, and it will impact whether we want to expand where we are right now. We have made an announcement that we are looking to expand beyond that with the right policy reforms and support corporate tax rates as well as tariffs. Industrial policy supports will be part of the factors we use to make an informed decision whether we continue to add capacity or not.

Have you been approached by any bitcoin miners?

Mark Widmar: No, but there’s an opportunity — it’s no different than data centers and alike. We provide a lot of solar power to data centers and as it relates to energy intensive process such as bitcoin mining, and we could translate that to solar power.

Article Topic Follows: Biz/Tech

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