A steel processing plant in Pennsylvania, pre-WWI, has resumed operations and is producing crucial components for an industry that didn’t exist 100 years ago: solar power.

Bethlehem Steel was founded in 1904 in Leetsdale, Pennsylvania, a town about 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The plant had been idle for years and still had dirt floors as of early 2022. In June this year part of the interior was rebuilt to accommodate the torque tube manufacturing lines – the rotating part of a single-axis solar tracker – used in racking developed by Nextracker, one of the largest solar tracker manufacturers on the planet.

A crane operator transports completed torque tubes across the floor of the Nextracker plant in Leetsdale, Pennsylvania. Billy Ludt / Solar Power World

“It’s been an industrial place for a long time,” said Matt Carroll, CEO of BCI Steel, a longtime contract fabricator that operates Nextracker’s new plant in Pennsylvania. “All along this river were steel mills. Mill after mill after mill – most of that is gone. This factory is a revival of this industrial heritage.

The next few years will no doubt be busy for solar manufacturing in the United States. The Inflation Reduction Act includes federal provisions for manufacturing tax credits to strengthen and support new and existing production operations of solar equipment, focused on components used in large-scale projects such as solar tracking torque tubes. The IRA also includes a 10% tax credit for projects that use a certain amount of domestic products, which incentivizes developers and installers to purchase US products.

Over the past year, Nextracker has opened three new factory lines in the United States with manufacturing partners. In addition to the Leetsdale location, there are new factories in Phoenix, Arizona, and Sinton, Texas run by contract manufacturers who also produce other tracker components. Nextracker commissioned new manufacturing lines ahead of the IRA to address domestic supply chain constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was massive congestion at the ports. The railroad tracks were congested. There were not enough trucks or containers. On top of that, the cost has doubled, tripled, even quadrupled for logistics,” said Marco Miller, COO and co-founder of Nextracker. “Many companies have had to rethink their entire supply chain strategy and Nextracker – although we manufacture here – decided to take this initiative to expand our [domestic] manufacturing base to reduce time to market for our products faster, with more predictability.

Now, with IRA support, the company plans to open more new factories in the US and expand existing operations. For the past few months, its new factories have been producing components already deployed in regional solar projects.

Factory tour

Bethlehem Steel is one of several factory buildings in Leetsdale Industrial Park, a 140-acre site flanked by the Ohio River and a commercial rail line, both of which serve as shipping routes from of Leetsdale. The west end of the Bethlehem building extends over the river, and military landing craft produced there during World War II were dropped directly into the water before sailing out to the ocean.

BCI previously manufactured components for Nextracker at its other steel facilities; however, the new Leetsdale line is a factory producing tracking gear only.

“We’ve been working with Nextracker on supply chain and manufacturing since the beginning,” Carroll said. “We evolved with them, and this is just the latest evolution.”

Torque tubes for use in single axis solar trackers are fed through a grinder. Next tracker

BCI began manufacturing torque tubes in Bethlehem in June following a groundbreaking ceremony attended by Nextracker executives and lawmakers, including Jennifer Granholm, secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. A completed solar tracker stands in the middle of the factory floor with modules autographed by these guests. The panels face a semi-automated torque tube production line operated by local labor.

“These are well-paying jobs and they are permanent. While field installation works are also permanent, but they are not as fixed,” Carroll said. “We have second and third generation steelworkers whose parents or grandparents worked in these factories.”

BCI’s manufacturing equipment has been custom designed for the production of torque tubes. The current production line operated in one of BCI’s Malaysian factories before being imported to Pennsylvania.

At one end of the factory floor are rows of steel coils, lengths of flattened metal wrapped in coils. A coil is placed in a decoiler which feeds the steel sheet into an accumulator and a tube mill which makes the metal malleable to bend into a cylinder shape. The long edges of the tube are welded together and cut to a length determined by the solar tracker model.

The formed tubes are transported by conveyor belt to the drilling and crimping lines. At the crimp line, the ends of the torque tube are formed to slide into the next tube to form a row of followers. A group drill makes holes in the torque tube to attach panel rails and other tracker components. Then the completed torque tubes are inspected for use in the field.

When one sheet of steel coil is finished, another is added and welded over the last to keep the line running, and the cycle repeats.

“We manufacture locally in most regions where we actually have plans,” said Yves Figuerola, vice president of global sourcing and supply chain at Nextracker. “We have been producing in the United States for three or four years, but not at a high volume mainly because of the cost. It takes time to set up these facilities.

Nextracker is opening manufacturing lines to serve immediate regions where there is demand for solar tracker projects, including northern US states where terrain and weather conditions were not always conducive to single-axis trackers . The company opened the development of projects in these territories with NX Horizon – XTR, a single-axis tracking system with higher tolerance for hilly terrain. Completed torque tubes are loaded onto flatbed trucks and transported to regional projects.

“He’s going to the Midwest and the Northeast,” Carroll said. “There are a lot of countries within a day’s drive of here so it will be mostly that. There are enough to keep us busy.

A welder connects two coils of steel coil. Next tracker

Steel processed at the Bethlehem plant also comes from local mills, including United States Steel in Pittsburgh. The steel used in Nextracker torque tubes is produced in electric arc furnaces, which produce considerably less carbon than traditional coal-fired blast furnaces. Parts of the steel also come from recycled metals.

Nextracker plans to ramp up production from current facilities and quickly open new factory lines in the United States. Figuerola said the company was finalizing deals with several other contract manufacturers at press time.

“I was telling people things were going to grow exponentially, and then looking back I realized it had been growing exponentially for 20 years,” Figuerola said. “[The IRA] would just be another layer of acceleration, but it’s always been that way in solar. It’s exciting and I think it’s going to unlock a lot of projects that developers may have been hesitant to try. It will push everything.

BCI plans to add a second line of torque tubes at the Bethlehem plant by late spring 2023 and is setting up equipment to produce panel rails as well. The second half of the Bethlehem plant remains undeveloped, and Carroll plans to eventually cover the rest of the dirt floor with concrete and reopen the large gates to the Ohio River to ship tracking equipment by water.

In pursuit of an all-domestic solar supply chain, tracker manufacturers have the unique advantage of working with fewer materials needed for production than other components found on a solar panel.

“I would say that steel parts for solar systems in general are easier to manufacture. It just takes longer to build a module factory,” Carroll said. “Not just the trackers, but the solar racks will probably be the first to be made here because we already have the inputs here.”

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