By Wes Tomlinson

North Alabama has been a focal point for growing industry these last few years, and with assistance from Joe Wheeler EMC, the future is only looking brighter.

First Solar Inc., based out of Tempe, Arizona, will begin building a facility in Lawrence County this year and it will be their fourth facility built in the United States. They are among the world’s 10 largest solar manufacturers, and with their facility in Perrysburg, Ohio  they are the largest solar factory by capacity in the Western Hemisphere.

Joe Wheeler EMC engineering director Ken Mcgee and his team met with members of the Lawrence County Industrial Development Board and Tennessee Valley Authority last year to discuss the landscape of the area and they developed a plan to determine how much power to provide to the facility in the timeframe required.

From the moment the project was introduced, Joe Wheeler EMC was eager to jump on board as initial information showed this facility could generate at least 35 megawatts of power.

“First Solar had an 18-month project timeline, which is very challenging as it is common for large pieces of electrical equipment to take as long as 80 weeks from order to delivery,” Mcgee said. “The plant projected electric load went up and down and back up again during the recruitment process, finally settling out at a projected 50-60 MW level. If this load proves out, First Solar will be twice as large as the currently largest JWEMC customer.”

Tabitha Pace, president and CEO of the Lawrence County Industrial Development Board, credits Joe Wheeler EMC in transforming the idea of the Lawrence County facility to a reality.

“This project would not have happened without them,” Pace said.

We understand the First Solar facility will bring opportunities to our members that most haven’t had since International Paper in Courtland closed in 2014 and over 1,000 jobs went along with it. First Solar is projecting they will hire approximately 715 workers in three years.

“We believe this First Solar facility will attract workers from as far west as the Shoals and as far east as Scottsboro and even areas in Mississippi and Tennessee,” said Brooks Kracke, CEO and president of the North Alabama Industrial Development Board.

First Solar, Inc. only distributes their panels to industries and Kracke said most of their customer base will consist of large-scale solar farms throughout the United States.

Mcgee said the First Solar facility has the potential to create many offshoot industries who will expand the job market and join the Joe Wheeler EMC system.

Joe Wheeler EMC CEO and general manager Gene Kanikovsky agrees and said he is looking forward to welcoming First Solar into the cooperative.

“We are proud to support the leading domestic producer of renewable energy products who is investing in the jobs and infrastructure of Lawrence County,” Kanikovsky said. “It is an exciting time for North Alabama that is quickly becoming a technological hub of the southeast.”

For over a year now, Joe Wheeler EMC has been installing fiber to give our members the opportunity to sign up for high-speed internet. This same opportunity will be available to First Solar.

Kracke said the reliability of high-speed internet was second to none for modern industries.

“(Joe Wheeler EMC) is installing this great network,” he said. “It’s so important to companies like First Solar. Internet is like the fifth utility now, it’s just as important as water, sewer, electricity, or gas. You have to have it.”

The 2.4 million sq. ft. facility will be built within the Mallard Fox West Industrial Complex on Hwy. 20 with production slated to begin in October 2024.