SunPower planning U.S. panel facility

LOS ANGELES Thu Sep 10, 2009 5:57pm EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - SunPower Corp SPWRA.O plans to make up to a quarter of its solar panels in the United States beginning a year or slightly longer from now, Chief Executive Tom Werner said on Thursday.

"We will produce panels in the United States in four or five quarters," Werner said at the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco.

SunPower, which Werner said also plans to set up production in Europe after the United States, is looking at manufacturing locations in U.S. states near strong solar markets. California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are "on the list," he added.

Werner declined to say what the facility would cost to set up or how many people it was expected to employ.

"In terms of megawatts it will represent a meaningful amount of our panel production, say up to a quarter of our total panel production," he said.

The San Jose, California-based maker of high-efficiency solar panels is in the process of applying for federal funds for the site, Werner said, but declined to say how much the company is seeking.

SunPower is "extraordinarily likely" to use an existing facility rather than build one from the ground up, Werner said.

The company could seek a deal similar to the one it has with contract electronics maker Jabil Circuit Inc (JBL.N), which makes solar panels for SunPower's North American solar customers at its own facility in Mexico.

In addition to Mexico, SunPower assembles panels at factories in the Philippines and China. It also produces solar cells in the Philippines, and is building another cell plant in Malaysia.

SunPower and other solar panel makers expect U.S. demand for solar power to flourish in the coming years despite the recent financial crisis that has hampered development of renewable energy projects in the last year.

On Thursday, Werner characterized current demand as "perhaps a bit stronger" than the company had expected when it announced second-quarter earnings in July.

He also stood by the company's third-quarter forecast calling for a 40 percent rise in revenue and earnings per share from the previous period.

In addition to improving demand, Werner said he is more optimistic about the financing environment, pointing to recent deals SunPower announced with French retailer Casino Group (CASP.PA) and U.S. bank Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N).

"I would say we're where we were a couple of years ago. We're certainly not where we were a year and a half ago or a year ago, just prior to the financial crisis. That will take some time," Werner said, adding that the market would be "substantially better" by the middle of next year.

(For summit blog: blogs.reuters.com/summits/)

(Additional reporting by Poornima Gupta, Laura Isensee and Mary Milliken in San Francisco; Editing by Richard Chang)

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