By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
A Canadian company is making a major investment in a Bellingham solar panel manufacturer.
Silfab Solar, the largest solar panel manufacturer in North America, announced a $40-million investment into Itek Energy.
Under the deal, Silfab will begin manufacturing panels out of Itek’s 48,000 square-foot factory in downtown Bellingham.
Silfab plans to open a second manufacturing line in the facility. The new line, with the edition of Silfab’s automation technology, is expected to more than double the factory’s production capacity.
The transaction was set to go through on Oct. 1.
“This is a marriage of highly similar and very compatible visions — to produce the highest-quality PV modules that consistently outperform competing products in efficiency, endurance and long-term power performance,” Paolo Maccario, COO and general manager of Silfab, said in a press release. “Our products are already deployed in 33 states. A U.S. operation will now enable us to meet additional demands and customer appetite for U.S.-made solar modules.”
As of early September, the exact mix of ownership, and the new role Itek will play at the factory was yet to be determined, Karl Unterschuetz, Itek’s director of business development, said. Silfab will take over management of the facility and the production of solar panels there.
“Itek still has a vested interest in the sales of material that’s manufactured there,” Unterschuetz said.
Earlier this summer, Unterschuetz said that Itek has been looking at opening a new factory in the southwest U.S., to take advantage of the massive market for solar panels there.
After the deal was announced, Unterschuetz said the company is still exploring that option.
There were several factors that made Itek an attractive investment for Silfab.
In January, the federal government imposed new tariffs on imported solar products.
In the first year, all solar panels and cells imported into the U.S. will get hit with a 30 percent tariff.
That percentage will decline over a four-year period.
However, the first 2.5 gigawatts of solar cells imported into the country are exempt from the tariffs.
When the tariffs went into place, there were relatively few producers of solar panels left in the United States, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
Between 2012 and 2016, solar imports grew by 500 percent and prices dropped by 60 percent.
Most U.S. producers of solar either stopped production, moved to other countries or declared bankruptcy.
Itek was one of the few remaining U.S. manufacturers.
Additionally, Washington offers even more incentives for solar panels made in-state.
“It really is the support of the local incentives that have made this possible,” Unterschuetz said. “It really has led to Washington becoming the leading exporter of solar in the country.”
Those state incentives, plus the strong in-state market for solar panels is what really caught Silfab’s attention, Unterschuetz said. The new tariffs just made the deal extra attractive.
Silfab is headquartered in Toronto, and has been in business for more than 35 years.
“I think our values are really similar,” Unterschuetz said. “They’re very committed to manufacturing in North America.”