“Solar is a juggernaut in the U.S."”
CHARLESTON, Tenn. -- Construction of Wacker's new polysilicon plant is at its peak, with more than 2,500 workers on site raising the factory that officials plan to switch on later this year.
"It will be the most advanced [polysilicon production] plant within Wacker and one of the most advanced in the world," said Konrad Bachhuber, who heads the German chemical company's operations in Bradley County.
The plant's full cost may hit $2.4 billion, making it the largest private construction project underway in Tennessee and one of the biggest in the Southeast.
Bachhuber estimates there are about 3,000 people working on the 550-acre site.
The installation of piping, about 127 miles of it when the plant is complete, is now a key task that's underway.
Wacker has hired nearly 300 workers as it eventually ramps up to 650 employees by early 2016 when the plant is at full production, Bachhuber said. The plant will make the raw material used in solar power panels, Bachhuber said.
* What: Production plant to provide polysilicon for solar power panels
* Investment: Up to $2.4 billion
* Jobs: 650
* Buildings: 30
* Plant startup: Second half 2015
By the numbers
* 3.8 million: Cubic yards of dirt moved
* 237,500: Dump truck loads of dirt
* 145,000: Cubic yards of concrete --
* 127 miles of pipe -- enough to stretch from Charleston, Tenn., to Birmingham, Ala.
* 40,000 tons of steel -- enough to build the Statue of Liberty 320 times.
The Charleston plant will produce 20,000 tons of polysilicon annually at full capacity, Bachhuber said.
The factory's start-up will take place in the second half of 2015, he said, and the plant chief sees "significant output" by year's end.
Most of the 30 buildings on site already are connected to a permanent power source, he said.
The testing phase at the plant will be vital and a long process, Bachhuber said, to ensure that every valve is functioning.
"We'll go unit by unit," he said.
Wacker hiring is in full swing, Bachhuber said, as it brings on chemical and technical operators, maintenance technicians, process support specialists, chemical engineers and chemists.
Wacker is supporting three new apprenticeship programs at Chattanooga State Community College to help meet future employment needs. Students who qualify and are selected for the programs will participate in paid on-the-job training, according to Wacker.
"This is a logical next step for us in working with Chattanooga State," Bachhuber said. He added that graduates aren't guaranteed a job but are given first consideration.
Erika Burk, human resources director for the site, said students will work one to two eight- or 12-hour shifts each week at the plant. Books and safety equipment required for the program will be provided by the company.
Chemical operator apprentices with the company will work one day a week in the fall and spring semesters, and twice a week in the summer. Mechanical and electrical/instrumentation apprentices will work two days a week.
"We believe this integrated approach will be very effective," Burk said.
In terms of chemical plants, Bachhuber believes that only the Eastman facilities in Kingsport, Tenn., are larger in the Volunteer State than the Wacker facility, on which work started in April 2011.
Gary Farlow, president of the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce, said the Wacker factory's scale is "one of those off-the-chart projects."
"Those don't come along often in someone's career," he said.
Farlow cited the economic impact of the construction jobs on Bradley's lodging and sales tax revenues, though he didn't have specific figures.
"The construction jobs have an impact on the economy though we know those are shorter term," he said, mentioning their affect on hotels, rental properties and restaurants. "We've enjoyed a pretty good ride."
Wacker, one of the world's biggest players in polysilicon, in 2009 announced the Charleston project and initially placed plant investment at $1 billion. In 2012, the company announced that production would be delayed by about 18 months and it slowed the pace of construction. At the time, Wacker blamed changing solar market conditions and over-capacity for polysilicon.
Another Tennessee polysilicon plant that was under construction in Clarksville, Tenn., owned by Hemlock Semiconductor, was built but never started production.
The average price for polysilicon in 2012 plunged by some 42 percent and struggled through 2013, according to pv magazine. Prices rebounded in 2014.
Bachhuber said solar projects, utility-scale, commercial and residential, are driving heightened business. For Wacker, polysilicon sales rose 13.5 percent last year worldwide, he said.
Solar Installation Growth
Bachhuber said solar installation growth in the United States has gone from 1.9 gigawatts in 2011 to 6.2 gigawatts last year. The expectation is for installation growth of 8 to 9.2 gigawatts in 2015 and close to 12 gigawatts in 2016. The plant official attributed the falling price of installations as one reason for the increase.
The U.S. is No. 3 worldwide in new solar installations behind China and Japan, he said. California is seeing the largest growth followed by North Carolina, Massachusetts and then states in the Southwest.
"Solar is a juggernaut in the U.S.," Bachhuber said. "The trends look good not only for the U.S. but worldwide. This is a global megatrend."
The Solar Energy Industries Association reported that solar accounted for 32 percent of the nation's new generating capacity in 2014. That beat out both wind energy and coal for the second year in a row. Only natural gas constituted a greater share of new generating capacity, according to SEIA.
Near the Charleston plant, a new three-lane road, Wacker Boulevard, has been constructed connecting Lauderdale Memorial Highway to Lower Mill Road. That has helped access to the factory and nearby Olin Chlor Alkali Products Co., which is a supplier of a key raw material in polysilicon production.
Farlow said Bradley officials have talked with Wacker about attracting plant suppliers and vendors to spur even more job growth in the area.
He recalls that it has been about a decade since the county's economic developers started wooing the company.
"It's been a long time coming. It's exciting to watch," Farlow said.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.