Solar panel maker First Solar breaks ground on $1.1 billion facility in Iberia Parish

by | Sep 25, 2023 | Business Development, Economic Development

Home » Solar panel maker First Solar breaks ground on $1.1 billion facility in Iberia Parish

It already might be the “hottest, sweetest, oiliest, and saltiest place on Earth,” but Iberia Parish is hoping to add “greenest” to that list before long.

Dozens of local and state officials, business leaders and others gathered in the middle of a sugarcane field Thursday morning to celebrate the beginning of the largest private capital investment in Acadiana’s history.

First Solar, the largest solar panel manufacturing company in the Western Hemisphere, officially began construction on its planned $1.1-billion manufacturing facility at the Acadiana Regional Airport in Iberia Parish with a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday. Dozens packed inside an air-conditioned tent to celebrate the project, which First Solar CEO Mark Widmar said he hopes will become the company’s best facility.

“Where we are today with this factory, I think will be best in class and a world leader,” Widmar said. “I want to make this our best factory. Not only our newest factory, but our best factory.”

Iberia Parish plays a big role in the company’s future

First Solar was founded in 1999 and is the only one of the 10 largest solar manufacturers in the world headquartered in the United States. It’s also the only one without manufacturing operations in China.

The company announced in August that it had selected a site at the Acadiana Regional Airport for its fifth factory, which is expected to be completed in the first half of 2026. Gov. John Bel Edwards said it is believed to be the single largest capital investment in the Acadiana region’s history. 

The $1.1-billion investment in an Iberia Parish facility is part of about $4.1 billion in planned investment in manufacturing operations between 2020 and 2026, according to a document distributed by First Solar at the groundbreaking.

The facility will produce high-performance photovoltaic solar modules that are expected to be made with all U.S.-made components.

“The success that we have as a company will be reflected back into the community,” Widmar said. 

What does this mean for Iberia Parish and Acadiana?

The project is expected to add about 700 direct jobs with an annual payroll of at least $40 million. The average pay is expected to be about $80,000, Widmar said.

During the groundbreaking, Iberia Parish President Larry Richard and Mike Tarantino, the president and CEO of the Iberia Industrial Development Foundation, lauded the project as one that will help expand the parish’s footprint and portfolio of industries.

“This is huge for us,” Richard said. “This is huge for the region.”

How did Iberia Parish land the facility?

Troy Wayman, the president and CEO of One Acadiana, which serves as the chamber of commerce for Lafayette Parish and works with chambers and economic development groups across the Acadiana region, said the decision likely was based on a few factors: the availability of certified site, the access to a workforce via the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and South Louisiana Community College, and the support of the local community.

“Acadiana has a long history of success in manufacturing, and partners across Iberia Parish and the region are committed to collaborating with First Solar to provide the resources it needs to succeed,” Wayman said. “Today’s groundbreaking celebrates that this collaboration will be a win-win for both First Solar and Acadiana, creating good manufacturing jobs, growing the vibrancy of our economy, and helping us to achieve our goals of diversifying in the energy sector.”

Since Wayman took over in 2018, One Acadiana has been aggressive in developing certified sites — sites that already have had a lot of the legwork needed to begin development done ahead of time. One Acadiana has expanded its portfolio of these sites significantly in recent years, giving the group a number of areas to show off to prospective businesses.

The availability of a high-quality workforce has been a top-of-mind issue for many businesses plotting expansions in recent years, with many states seeing low unemployment rates and labor force participation rates. Louisiana has been no exception, with the state recording its lowest-ever unemployment rate of 3.3% in August.

But the proximity of two higher education institutions — SLCC and UL Lafayette — have First Solar hopeful that the company will be able to attract workers.

“We are thankful to First Solar for their confidence in our ability,” said UL Lafayette President Joseph Savoie. “Working with our partners at SLCC, we will deliver.”

Vincent June, the chancellor for SLCC, said the system has been working to address the workforce needs of Southwest Louisiana and will continue to answer the call.

In addition to the access to a quality workforce, Wayman said the support of the local community, especially from other business leaders in the area, was essential in helping close the deal. He specifically mentioned Blaise Zuschlag, the chief administrative officer for Acadian Companies and the chair of One Acadiana’s board of directors, as being instrumental in the effort.

He said Zuschlag arranged for one of Acadian’s medical helicopters to take First Solar’s leadership on an aerial tour of the site. He also hosted them at his duck camp and made them crawfish étouffée. 

“Those types of things showed the hospitality that they can expect here,” Wayman said.