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photos: Schott

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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