Solar Frontier eyes overseas sites

Japan’s Solar Frontier confirms to Recharge that it is scouting foreign locations for its first module factory outside Japan, after announcing it will restart production at its 60MW “No. 2” plant in Miyazaki prefecture.

Solar Frontier opened the No. 2 plant in 2009, but suspended production last year as its nearby 900MW “No. 3” factory approached its full output. The No. 2 plant has since been used for equipment testing.

But Solar Frontier, which is owned by the oil company Showa Shell, says it will reopen No. 2 from July in order to meet demand for its modules in the scorching Japanese PV market.

Atsuhiko Hirano, senior vice president, says the No. 3 plant – with some 900MW of capacity – is “fully” running at the moment, and “only able to meet demand in Japan”.

“We’re having difficulty meeting demand for customers for 2013 – and even for some parts of 2014,” he says. “So we definitely needed to add capacity in Japan.”

Expanding market share in its domestic market – booming on the back of the country’s new feed-in tariff – remains Solar Frontier’s top priority, Hirano says. The company hopes to be the number one module supplier to the Japanese market within a year or two, as it competes with players like Panasonic and Sharp.

Although a growing number of foreign module producers are targeting Japan – likely to be the world’s second largest PV market this year – Japanese consumers largely prefer domestic companies, analysts say.

However, beyond restarting the No. 2 plant, Solar Frontier has no immediate desire to add more production capacity in Japan, Hirano says, preferring instead to open a plant in another country to be close to new customers.

“We’d like to do this as quickly as possible,” he says, after finalizing the right location and local partner.

Saudi Aramco owns a significant minority stake in Solar Frontier's parent Showa Shell, and Hirano acknowledges that the Middle East looms as a very interesting future market for the company.