Germany's Schott opens new U.S. solar facility

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Schott Solar, seeking to capture a big chunk of the U.S. solar market, will unveil a new U.S. facility on Monday that will produce both solar thermal and photovoltaic solar components.

The unit of privately held German glass maker Schott AG said its Albuquerque, New Mexico facility employs 300 workers and will be up to 350 staff by the end of the year.

The plant will produce traditional crystalline-silicon photovoltaic (PV) modules, which transform sunlight into electricity, as well as receivers for solar thermal power plants that convert the sun’s heat into energy.

In a solar thermal power plant, the sun’s rays heat a fluid housed in a long glass tube called a receiver. The hot fluid is then used to generate steam that turns a turbine.

At first, Scott’s plant will be capable of producing between 65 megawatts and 85 MW of PV solar modules annually, though production will not go as high as 85 MW this year, Schott Solar CEO Gerald Fine said in an interview.

Fine added that the company was looking beyond the current economic downturn toward the long-term potential for solar power in the United States.

“If you are going to make an investment in our industry, let’s face, it’s not for the faint hearted,” Fine said. “You have to look a little past the first half of 2009 and think about the medium- and long-term prospects for the industry.”

Schott has long produced solar panels at a small facility in Billerica, Massachusetts, Fine said, but the Albuquerque plant is substantially larger, representing a major expansion of the company’s U.S. solar business.

The recession and global credit crunch have had a tougher impact on PV solar than on solar thermal, or concentrating solar projects, Fine added, because solar thermal plants have a much longer planning and permitting process.

In addition, many in the industry are in a “wait and see mode” while funds for renewable energy projects from the U.S. economic stimulus are preparing to be allocated.

Less than a quarter of the new Schott plant’s photovoltaic modules will be shipped overseas this year, Fine said, while most of the solar thermal components will be used for U.S. projects.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing Bernard Orr, Leslie Gevirtz