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German solar company Schott on Monday cut the ribbon on a $100 million factory in Albuquerque, N.M., that will produce solar panels as well as receivers for solar trough power plants. Meanwhile, Chinese solar giant Suntech said Monday that it will build a solar cell manufacturing plant in the United States.

The move to North America comes as the European market softens as government subsidies ebb and solar panel prices fall. Despite the severe U.S. recession, Schott and Suntech are betting that the solar market will boom when the economy recovers and they’ll gain a competitive edge by manufacturing near customers.

“We think North America in general is the next big market for solar power,” Gerald Fine, CEO of Schott Solar’s North American operations, told Green Wombat. “Especially in the case of concentrated solar receivers you want to be close to your customers and provide great customer service and low shipping costs.”

schottsolar05And it doesn’t hurt to be generating green jobs as well. The 200,000-square-foot New Mexico factory employs 350 people. The plant was built too late to take advantage of the Obama stimulus package’s 30% tax credit for renewable energy manufacturing. But Fine said the tax credit will encourage Schott’s plans to eventually expand the facility to 800,000 square feet with a workforce of 1,500.

The receivers the factory makes are long glass-covered steel tubes that sit above parabolic troughs in large solar farms. The troughs concentrate sunlight on the receivers to heat a synthetic oil inside that is used to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.

Fine declined to discuss specific customers for the receivers but there are numerous solar trough power plants being planned for the Southwest, including Abengoa Solar’s Solana project in Arizona and utility FPL’s (FPL) Beacon 250-megawatt solar in California.

“We feel pretty comfortable with our order books in both product lines for the foreseeable future,” said Fine. “If you look at the publicly announced plans and try to put a reasonable probability of them being completed, there’s in excess of two gigawatts of power plants out there.”

Schott will have the North American receiver market to itself but will face some stiff competition when it comes to making photovoltaic modules. Thin-film solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR) is headquartered in neighboring Arizona and claims the lowest cost of manufacturing. Last year, German solar cell maker SolarWorld opened a factory outside Portland, Ore., while Silicon Valley’s SunPower (SPWRA) makes some of the most efficient solar cells — albeit overseas.

And now China’s Suntech (STP) is moving into the U.S. manufacturing market. The company on Monday said it is looking at several states as potential sites for a factory and will make a decision on where to locate the facility within six months

“We believe in the outstanding long-term prospects of the solar energy market in the United States, and we will continue to invest in our ability to meet a substantial portion of that potential growth through in-market manufacturing,” Suntech CEO Zhengrong Shi said in a statement.

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schott.jpegBig Solar has been about Big Dreams – fields of mirrors carpeting the desert to produce clean, greenhouse-gas free electricity. But in another step toward making that vision a concrete-and-glass reality, Schott Solar announced Monday that it is building a factory in Albuquerque, N.M., to manufacture components for large-scale solar thermal power plants as well as photovoltaic modules for commercial rooftop arrays.

The German company’s news follows Silicon Valley solar startup Ausra’s announcement last month that it’s building a solar thermal factory in Nevada — the first in North America.

That solar companies are now investing capital to break ground on manufacturing plants represents the creation of a Big Solar infrastructure and, of course, a move to get on the ground floor of what is expected to be a solar building boom in the sun-drenched Southwest of the United States. Utilities throughout the region are facing mandates to dramatically increase their use of renewable energy. In California, for instance, PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) are all negotiating big megawatt contracts for utility-scale solar power thermal power plants. A consortium of Southwest utilities meanwhile has put out to bid a 250-megawatt solar station.

“We certainly see the opportunity for growth in the solar thermal market,” Mark Finocchario, CEO of Shott’s North American operations, told Green Wombat. “The concentration of solar thermal plants will be in the Southwest and we see that’s where the rest of the supply market will develop as well. But we would have the ability to ship product to anywhere in the world.”

The $100 million Albuquerque factory will manufacture solar thermal receivers — long tubes that hang over curved mirrors called solar troughs. The mirrors focus the sun’s rays on the receivers and liquid inside becomes superheated to produce steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

Finocchario says the the plant, which will employ 350 people, is set to go online by the end of the first quarter of 2009. Future plans call for another $400 million investment to expand the factory’s workforce to 1,500.

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