Florida’s lone solar panel maker is growing in Riviera Beach


When Linda Smithe and her husband Brian Ducharme decided to purchase a rooftop solar energy system for their Jupiter area home, their goal was to reduce their carbon footprint, support local jobs and avoid buying solar panels from China.

Fortunately, Florida’s only solar photovoltaic manufacturer, SolarTech Universal, is headquartered in Riviera Beach and produces cutting-edge solar panels with smart wire technology at its facility there. The couple contacted SolarTech which connected them with a licensed contractor.

“It became almost a no-brainer. Plus, SolarTech makes a better, more efficient panel,” said Smithe, a retired architect and LEED green building consultant. “It’s locally made, and seemed like a good fit.”

The $23,000 8.4-kilowatt system was just installed, and so far the couple is pleased.

TO WATCH A VIDEO SHOWING THE PANELS BEING MADE, CLICK HERE.

Ironically, the Sunshine State counts just one solar panel manufacturer, SolarTech. The Palm Beach County-based company is finding a lot of customers, locally and nationally, as it stakes out its niche in a playing field that has been dominated by low-cost Asian imports.

Paul Roraff, SolarTech’s plant manager, said the company is in its second year of production at the 85,000-square-foot facility, a former boatyard. Demand is growing, and the 40-employee company plans to add a second shift in Riviera Beach soon. It expects to open a plant in Puerto Rico next year at a former pharmaceutical facility.

“It’s kind of like the electric car. Ten years ago, the electric car was buried. Who doesn’t want a Tesla now? Solar is very similar. What kind of home improvement can you to do your house that is saving the world and reducing carbon?” Roraff said.

Most of the world’s solar panels are made in China and Taiwan but there’s a demand for quality U.S. product. Two companies that tried to compete with the low-priced imports from Asia have experienced financial problems. Norcross, Ga.-based Suniva shut down earlier this year, and Solar World America’s German parent company filed for bankruptcy.

Those failures have created more opportunity for other American solar manufacturers.

“We are not trying to compete with the Chinese,” Roraff said.

Instead, SolarTech is focusing on producing a premier product using superior materials. The modules are made with parts sourced from the U.S., Japan, Germany and other countries. The privately-held company is also owned by American investors based in the Northeast, unlike some U.S. solar PV manufacturers who are part of multi-national corporations.

“It’s a global supply chain,” said Glenn Woodruff, a SolarTech executive sales team member. “But nothing in our panel comes from China.”

The company founded in 2012 produces the panels on a robotic assembly line, resulting in production that is 90 percent automated. It’s licensed by global technology company Meyer Burger. The Swiss company made the production equipment and shipped it to the plant. Meyer Burger monitors the system remotely from Switzerland and Oregon, said Woodruff.

Woodruff said the plant has the capability of producing 21,000 panels a month. It takes about 23 panels for a solar PV system for an average home.

SolarTech is the only company in the U.S. making panels using Meyer Burger’s Smart Wire Technology. Instead of a traditional “busbar” — a large silver bar found in a series of five across most solar cells, the panels feature 18 micro-wires that form a dense grid of up to 2,660 contact points on the solar cell.

The design allows more light to hit the 60-cell panel’s surface. The cells convert the sunlight to electricity, and the combined cells are referred to as a panel or module.

Many other technical differences separate SolarTech’s panels from the pack. While 90 percent of modules are made with an alcohol-based material that attracts water, the company spends more for a material that repels water, Woodruff said. An aluminum backsheet also protects against moisture.

The panels carry a 12-year warranty craftsmanship warranty and a 30-year performance warranty.

Employees perform a vital role in quality control, making visual inspections, and on keeping an eye on certain aspects of the process on the production floor. They are trained on the job.

“We want to hire people who have a keen eye; people who can make decisions and are proactive. There are critical thinking skills,” Woodruff said.

Each of the 300-watt panels is tested by running 3,700 volts through it, to make sure there are no electrical shorts. A solar simulator flashes each panel with light. An electro-luminescent photo is taken, enabling the operator to check the panel for defects, Woodruff said. Modules which fail the tests are discarded. The failure rate is less than one half of 1 percent.

About 70 percent of the company’s business is within Florida, but its panels have been shipped to other states such as Wyoming, Illinois and South Carolina and even out of the Port of Palm Beach to the Bahamas.

Bill Johnson, president and owner of solar installation firm Brilliant Harvest in Sarasota, said his company just completed an installation of 42 of SolarTech’s panels at New College of Florida’s Heiser Science Center, and has two more projects lined up using the panels.

“We try to work with American-made products and local products as much as possible,” Johnson said. “That is part of the great thing about solar. It is a home-grown energy source. We don’t have to import fuel from the natural gas fields of South Dakota or oil from overseas.

“Smart wire is a good technology that increases the performance of the panels and reduces the points of failure in the panels,” Johnson said. “The cost is pretty much in line with the other premium higher-wattage panels that are out there.”

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11 August 2017 12:00 pm
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