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HomeRenewablesNextracker expands Pennsylvania plant to meet new solar demand in the region

Nextracker expands Pennsylvania plant to meet new solar demand in the region

Despite writing about solar for more than five years, I rarely have the chance to stand up from my office chair, hop in my car and drive somewhere to see something in person. We solar editors attend a couple tradeshows a year and see the latest products in PV on display in tidy booths in sprawling convention centers, flanked by giant banners, branded swag and anything else that could entice customers into sales conversations.

Yet the reality of how these products are made is much less glamorous and much more impressive than what occurs in a tradeshow booth.

About 30 minutes northwest of Downtown Pittsburgh is the Leetsdale Industrial Park in Leetsdale, Pennsylvania, a factory lot with several plants, including one producing torque tubes for Nextracker single-axis solar trackers.

A factory worker stands beside a torque tube manufacturing line at Nextracker’s plant in Leetsdale, Pennsylvania. Nextracker

The Bethlehem Steel building has been around since the early 1900s and once built military landing craft used in World War II. When I first visited the plant in 2022, the age of that building was apparent. Half of the factory still had a dirt floor, an aged overhead crane dangled from above and natural light poured through gaps in the giant back door that overlooked the Ohio River. I regrettably wore dress shoes for the tour.

The single torque tube forming line occupied perhaps an eighth to a quarter of that space in 2022, accompanied by a smattering of components and raw materials. Even in those early days, there were already plans to expand operations at this busy factory still with a lot of empty space.

Nearly two years since it reopened, there are now three active torque tube lines in the plant with a fourth incoming. The remaining space on the now fully paved factory floor is filled with spools of flat steel coil waiting to be processed and stacks of completed torque tubes on pallets that reach all the way to the back of the building and spill outside into the parking lot (so much so that I couldn’t find a place to park at first). The factory employs more than 70 people — more than tripling its starting workforce — who are working across three shifts, turning out 10 truckloads of product a day, which is about 12,000 torque tubes a week.

The manufacturing lines are mostly automated, with oversight from factory workers inspecting the process and guiding tubes between certain steps. Flat steel uncoiled from large spools is fed into a forming machine that shapes the metal into a tube; then a saw cuts it to a specified length and glides along a track, carrying the tube to a bay; from there, it’s transferred for swaging so the leading end will connect to the proceeding torque tube, and drilling so that the client’s solar modules will properly attach to it. When a spool of steel coil is close to running out, one end is welded to the next spool so the manufacturing process doesn’t stop.

Finally, forklifts transfer bundles of tubes to the thousands of other tubes awaiting pickup and delivery on flatbed trucks to solar projects somewhere in the region.

The shape of solar manufacturing to come

Chris Bartley, director of utility sales for Nextracker, said this isn’t the company’s first domestic expansion, but it is the most substantial. Since 2021, Nextracker has had more than 20 factory openings or expansions in the United States, and its latest at Leetsdale has made it capable of supplying torque tubes for 4 GW of single-axis solar projects annually from that plant alone.

“During the pandemic, we lost the ability to deliver to projects on time,” he said. “Our leadership decided they couldn’t deal with these logistic delays and wanted to onshore manufacturing.”

A crowd gathers for a ribbon cutting ceremony acknowledging manufacturing expansion at Nextracker and JM Steel’s torque tube plant in Leetsdale, Pennsylvania. Nextracker

When torque tubes started coming off the line in Leetsdale, Nextracker’s delivery territory was much larger with longer lead times, but in these last two years that has changed. Nextracker is now seeing enough demand that products from this factory are being delivered mostly to solar projects in the Midwest, Northeast and even within the state. The company has dedicated manufacturing lines in Arizona, California, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas to supply what Bartley called “regional hotspots.”

“Our goal is every project site across the country must have less than one-day delivery from the factory,” Bartley said.

Domestic manufacturing provides some flexibility in orders since the raw materials are sourced from the region. JM Steel, the contract manufacturer running the Leetsdale plant, only uses U.S. steel fabricated in electric arc furnaces, a method that uses scrap or recycled metals and has a lower carbon footprint than coke-fed blast furnaces. If Nextracker needs to add a few tubes to an order, JM can meet that with relative ease and on a shorter lead time than using an international supplier.

“Our reaction time to fixing mistakes is exponentially quicker, too,” said Negley Rodgers, assistant VP of operations at JM.

There are factories opening in the United States that are accounting for nearly every piece of a solar array, from wire management to module assembly. Understandably, it’s big news when a new plant opens, but expansions at existing facilities warrant some attention as well.

In the beginning, there were around 20 people working at the Leetsdale factory. Now there is a mostly local workforce of over 70 people, a fourth manufacturing line on the way and a frequent supply of torque tubes made from regionally sourced steel that are supplied to regionally built solar projects. A few years ago, these projects simply did not exist, and now, here is a glimpse at the impact solar manufacturing is having in a burgeoning market, and how much room there still is to grow.

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