Solar Energy Is Booming in Georgia. It's Not for the Reasons You Might Expect.

June 25, 2019 AT 8:11 AM

By Andrea Hsu and Mary Louise Kelly

In northern Georgia, near the Tennessee line, the city of Dalton made its fame as the carpet capital of the world. These days, a more accurate title would be floor covering capital of the world. It has diversified into hardwood, tile, laminate and other materials.

And in a big move last year, Dalton added a new industry to its manufacturing mix: the largest solar panel assembly plant in the Western hemisphere, a $150 million investment.

This is just one sign that in Georgia, solar is booming.

And it's not for the reasons you might expect. Like most states in the Southeast, Georgia doesn't have the kind of state-level mandates that have propelled the growth of renewable energy in other parts of the country. Nor is it because of a groundswell of public concern over climate change or the need to curb greenhouse gases.

Instead, there are powerful market forces at work. The U.S. is the second-largest market for solar in the world, after China. Ever cheaper and better solar technology, available land and lots of sunshine are driving demand for massive, utility-scale solar projects across the American Southeast.

"This is the largest region for solar installations in the next five years," says Scott Moskowitz, director of strategy and market intelligence for Hanwha Q Cells America.

Headquartered in Seoul, South Korea, Hanwha showed up in Dalton in early 2018, says Mayor Dennis Mock. "They knew we were good for manufacturing jobs and plenty of them," he says.

Georgia's then-Gov. Nathan Deal announced the plant in May 2018, four months after President Trump imposed a 30% tariff on solar panel imports. The plant began shipping panels in February 2019.

Today, the Dalton plant runs 24/7, employing 600 American workers who operate the high-tech assembly lines imported by Hanwha from Korea. The solar cells — the parts that actually convert sunlight into electricity — are also manufactured in Korea. They are not currently subject to tariffs, but they could be next year, when a quota on cell imports will likely be reached. Operating at capacity, the factory is now assembling 10,000 panels a day.

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