As the price of solar panels has come down, proponents have argued they will become a cost-saver to businesses and consumers. But they still take years to pay for themselves. (AJC file photo)

Korean solar company to build 500 worker plant in Dalton

A South Korean company will create more than 500 jobs and invest $150 million in a new solar module manufacturing facility near Dalton.

The company, Hanwha Q CELLS Korea, will make “high-performance and high-quality photovoltaic modules” starting in 2019, according to the office of Gov. Nathan Deal, which announced the commitment Wednesday.

The company is expected to start construction on the 44-acre property in Whitfield County and to hire primarily from the area, according to Carl Campbell, the executive director of the Dalton Whitfield County Joint Development Authority.

“One of the things that got us into the conversation [about the company’s plans] was that we had a site right here that was ready to go,” he said.

The announcement comes after the collapse of what had been the state’s premier manufacturer of solar materials, Suniva in Norcross. That much-touted company has been through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the stage recently set for sell-off of the company’s assets.

According to industry reports, Suniva had been among those that wanted the Trump administration to impose tariffs on solar imports, arguing that it needed protection to survive. The argument was bitterly criticized by some others in the industry, including the Solar Energy Industries Association, since most of the U.S. jobs in solar are not in manufacturing.

Suniva won the argument, tariffs were indeed imposed, but the company went under anyhow.

Despite that, there are other signs of growth in the solar industry, according to E&E News.

Attempts by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to reach a spokesman for Suniva were unsuccessful.

More solar-related manufacturing would be welcome news, since the United States really needs much more production, said Dan Whitten, vice president of the solar association. 

However, “it isn’t entirely clear how much new U.S. manufacturing actually will be added, and the fact remains that any new manufacturing will not in the end be nearly enough to meet US demand for panels now or into the future.”

Tariffs are dangerous to other jobs, he said. 

The plans of Hanwha Q CELLS Korea are aimed at one of the sections of Georgia hardest hit by the recession a decade ago. At the worst of the post-recession hemorrhaging, Dalton – the hub of America’s carpet-making industry — had lost 23 percent of its jobs.

Even now, there are still 12,000 fewer jobs in the Dalton area now than before the recession started in late 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We are kind of a manufacturing community,” Campbell said. “But in our housing recession we lost a lot of jobs that we have still not recovered. So we have people here who are ready to go.”

Many Dalton-area residents also commute to similar jobs in Tennessee, Alabama or metro Atlanta, Campbell said. “This might give them a chance to stay here and do this work.

Roki Oh, a spokesperson for Hanwha Q CELLS Korea, said late Thursday that the company does hope to do most of its hiring for the new plant from the Dalton area.

At least 24 Korean companies have operations in Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

The largest South Korean presence is the Kia Motors plant, which churns out tens of thousands of vehicles a year in West Point.

While there are roughly 80 facilities in Georgia operated by Korean companies, 28 of them manufacturing plants, according to the department and the governor’s office.

The Hanwha plant will be the first Korean plant in Whitfield county.

Hanwha Q CELLS Korea currently has manufacturing facilities in Malaysia and China, but only sales offices in the United States.

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