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"Solar manufacturers struggle to meet demand"

Manufacturers are producing solar modules as fast as they can, but not fast enough to meet demand.

"Solar manufacturers struggle to meet demand"

Butts home in Summerville featuring Sanyo panels

By:  Nathalie Weinstein
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Manufacturers are producing solar modules as fast as they can, but not fast enough to meet demand.

Manufacturers and solar installers say demand for modules is increasing because of low prices, new feed-in tariff programs and greater public awareness. Now, some people are predicting that a module supply shortage could be on the horizon.

“We are starting to see signs that the pendulum is shifting in the direction of less product,” said Andy Noel, Northwest regional manager for REC Solar, which has an office in Portland. “I am not suggesting that (solar module) prices will be going through the roof. But with more demand and less product, prices could go back up.”

In Oregon, the modules that SolarWorld makes at its Hillsboro facility for large, commercial projects are backlogged until November or December, company spokesman Ben Santarris said.

Sanyo North America Corp., which operates a wafer production plant in Salem, has been back-ordering its product for the past several years, according to Sanyo spokesman Aaron Fowles.

“We haven’t had enough supply to meet our own demand for some time,” Fowles said. “We’ve been doing all we can to expand our facilities and bring production closer to our markets.”

The problem isn’t limited to Oregon companies, either. Arizona-based First Solar in June announced that it would not be able to produce enough units to meet demand in 2010. Meanwhile, companies from other countries are stepping in to pitch their solar products. Larry Lowery, a project manager with Northwest Solar Solutions, a Portland-based solar installer, said he gets calls every day from manufacturers outside the U.S. pitching new and improved modules.

Staving off those competitors requires more than just ramping up the manufacturing process, Fowles said, but also development of newer, more efficient panels. Some Sanyo solar products no longer exist because they sold quickly and were subsequently replaced with next-generation technology to stay competitive, Fowles said.

Locally, programs like Solarize Portland are driving sales of solar modules, according to Jonathan Cohen, owner of Imagine Energy and a Solarize Portland contractor. Groups of people buy photovoltaic modules in bulk via the community program. Modules are then installed by a single contractor.

“It’s a great time for solar,” Cohen said. “There are more solar sales this year compared to other years.”

And soon, nearly 200 new solar photovoltaic modules will be installed throughout the state as part of a pilot feed-in tariff program. Pacific Power, Portland General Electric and Idaho Power are managing the program, which allows customers with solar photovoltaic modules to reduce utility costs by generating their own electricity. New feed-in tariff programs are also popping up in Europe, Fowles said, and increasing demand for modules.

“When a feed-in tariff system goes on anywhere in the world, Sanyo will focus its products in those areas,” Fowles said. “Because we’re overextended, we try and be selective in where we sell our product.”

For now, installers aren’t worried they will be unable to conduct business due to a module shortage, Lowery said. Most installers do business with several manufacturers in case one encounters a supply problem.

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