By Vidhan Rana

For many years, Europe appeared to be at the forefront of the solar industry. Most of the world’s major manufacturers were located there, and most of the sales happened in Europe as well. However, many European countries are now scaling back their incentive programs for solar installations, which were aiding the growth of the industry on the continent, leading to a dramatic decrease in new installations. Spain, for example, saw its annual new installations decrease from 2,710 MW in 2008 to a mere 180 MW in 2009. Germany and Italy, with new installations of 3,800 MW and 700 MW respectively in 2009, are among the most sought after markets in the solar industry. However, even in these countries, new installations are projected to decline over the years. The table below shows the comparison of the 10 most active markets in the solar industry in 2009.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reported in April that total employment within the solar industry in 2009 hit 46,000, an increase of 10,000 jobs even as the worst recession in decades hit our economy. SEIA estimates that by the end of 2010, the industry will directly employ around 60,000 people. Total grid-tied solar electricity production increased by 37%, or 441 MW, in 2009 bringing the total production in the U.S. to 1,653 MW. It is estimated that an additional 6,000 MW of solar installations are in the pipeline and are expected to become available over the next few years.

With such positive trends and an administration that is looking to diversify the country’s energy needs away from oil, the United States has become a destination of choice for many foreign solar companies.

Since January of this year alone, seven international solar companies have announced plans for new locations in the United States and Canada. These companies come from Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Greece, and China. Over 1,300 new jobs will be created as a result of these expansions. The table below has more information about these seven companies.

All of these announcements come on the heels of several other expansions and new investment plans announced by other U.S.-based solar product manufacturers. A total of 30 new projects and 17 expansions of solar product manufacturing facilities were recorded by Conway Data in 2009. These projects resulted in $4.6 billion in investment and creation approximately 8,000 new jobs.  The chart below shows the growth of solar projects in the U.S. since 2003.

Along with the number of projects, the number of jobs created by the industry has also increased dramatically over the last seven years. While there were just four projects creating 635 jobs in 2003 in the country, in 2009 there were 47 projects creating around 8,000 jobs. The chart below shows the progression of jobs created by the solar industry in the U.S.

While the Southwestern and Western United States had the highest growth in solar installations over the past few years, states like Pennsylvania and Michigan are now taking the bulk of the manufacturing projects in the country. In fact, Pennsylvania, with 11 projects in 2009, had the highest number of projects in the industry followed by Michigan with 8 projects. Below is a table of the Top 10 states in terms of projects in solar product manufacturing.

As the solar industry grows in the U.S., economic development officials and leaders need to recognize that our country is just catching up with a movement that has been around in Europe for more than a decade. With India and China both targeting to have over 20,000 MW installed capacity by 2020, the industry is going to continue this growth trend. As economic development officials embark on business recruitment efforts, it is important to recognize that the industry in more mature outside of the United States and international recruiting is needed to stay ahead of the game.

As a service to our friends in the economic development world, Whittaker Associates is putting together a list of international solar companies. The list will contain major international solar product manufacturers that are yet to have a manufacturing presence in the United States. A limited number of copies of that list will be available on our website early next month. Please keep an eye out for that announcement. If you would like to pre-order the list, please contact Vidhan Rana.