From calls in the middle of the night to Trump’s tariffs, solar panel manufacturer executive shares how the deal evolved and was made.
China-based JinkoSolar Holding Co. Ltd. settled on Jacksonville for the first new U.S. solar-panel plant since tariffs were announced in January because of a focus by the city and state.
“Everybody really wanted to make it happen,” said Nigel Cockroft, general manager of JinkoSolar (U.S.) Inc., covering the U.S. and Canada.
JinkoSolar is based in Shanghai. Cockroft is general manager of San Francisco-based JinkoSolar (U.S.) Inc. and is responsible for photovoltaic module sales and operations in the U.S. and Canada.
In April, the company registered the name JinkoSolar (U.S.) Industries Inc. with the state.
JinkoSolar Director of Business Development Jeff Juger said many of the company’s top customers wanted it to build a factory in the U.S.
“They suggested many places to us, including Jacksonville,” he said.
JinkoSolar received proposals from seven or eight states in the Southeast, including Texas, Cockroft said. Jacksonville was chosen for the 200-job solar-panel plant over another Southeastern location that Cockroft said was not disclosed.
“The coordination between the city and the state was the best that we saw,” Cockroft said in an interview after speaking at the fourth-quarter meeting of JAXUSA Partnership, the economic-development division of JAX Chamber.
City Council supported incentives for JinkoSolar in a resolution adopted March 13.
JinkoSolar agreed to open the $50 million plant in AllianceFlorida at Cecil Commerce Center in West Jacksonville with the support of city and state incentives. The 200 jobs, which will pay an average annual wage of $45,562, must be created by the end of 2019.
The company leases 285,652 square feet in a 407,435-square-foot building at 4660 POW-MIA Memorial Parkway.
The city’s economic development agreement states that JinkoSolar would create 100 jobs by year-end 2018. An executive with JinkoSolar, a public company, said Nov. 26 in an analysts’ conference call that the company launched pilot production.
Cockroft said Thursday the company hired more than 100 people. More than 30 were sent to China for training.
It expects to reach full production – two panels a minute 24/7 – in late February.
Cockroft said the state’s strategy to promote Northeast Florida was apparent.
“At the city and JAXUSA level, they were just extraordinarily organized, and they made it clear that building a factory in a hurry would be doable here,” he said.
A dinner with Mayor Lenny Curry and chamber members helped to persuade JinkoSolar, he said.
“Every one of them made a compelling case around the table for Jacksonville and what their experience was,” Cockroft said.
Access for assistance also helped, especially given that Shanghai is 13 hours ahead of Jacksonville. For example, 3 p.m. in Shanghai is 2 a.m. in Jacksonville.
“Anytime there was an issue, we could just call them on our cellphones in the middle of the night,” Cockroft said. “If we needed an answer, they would go above and beyond to get those answers.”
That wasn’t the case elsewhere.
“We sensed that we couldn’t get that level of support from any other city that we talked to,” he said.
“Even though they all had good intentions and even though they were all willing to put money up for it, it doesn’t substitute for getting the job done by getting good support,” Cockroft said.
He said during the speech that “everybody we needed to talk to was brought to us” during a two-day “intensive” site visit to Jacksonville.
Tariffs changed the deal
The city and state offered $4.2 million in incentives. That assistance included city tax incentives of $3.4 million consisting of a $3.2 million Recapture Enhanced Value grant to be paid over 10 years and a $200,000 Qualified Target Industry tax refund for JinkoSolar to be repaid over five years.
The state will pay the remaining $800,000 of the total $1 million QTI refund.
JinkoSolar is the first Chinese company to set up a factory in the U.S. after President Donald Trump approved 30 percent tariffs in January on imported solar panel technology.
JinkoSolar initially pursued a larger Jacksonville presence under the code name Project Volt, requesting $53.9 million in city and state tax assistance. Council approved the Volt agreement Jan. 23.
It included nearly $25 million in city-backed incentives in exchange for 800 jobs and the creation of two facilities in North and West Jacksonville to establish a North American headquarters, manufacturing and distribution facilities.
The company was planning to invest $410 million to build-out and lease a 815,000-square-foot warehouse in North Jacksonville for a solar-panel assembly and distribution center and the AllianceFlorida building for a manufacturing plant. It now leases part of that building.
In March, the city Office of Economic Development announced that JinkoSolar decided to reduce the initial investment. Council repealed the Volt agreement and new legislation was introduced and adopted that identified JinkoSolar.
“There was a refinement associated with the finalization of the tariffs,” Cockroft said, as well as “some of the unknown additional tariffs that were being considered.”
“There were tariffs in consideration for steel and aluminum,” he said, such as the aluminum used on the panels.
“There were additional tariffs that have been put in place around some of the other materials we import, some of the equipment, so a little bit of the scale-back here has to do with the continuing tariff situation,” he said.
People and production
Cockroft said hiring includes retired Navy personnel with technical and engineering skills.
“I think it’s a tight labor market, but I think we’re doing quite well,” he said.
A bigger challenge was the construction schedule because of the stretched availability of contractors during a strong economy, he said.
Cockroft told the 400 JAXUSA members and guests that the facility will be the world’s most technologically advanced solar panel plant, producing 1.2 million panels a year.
He said that production at that level previously would have required up to 3,000 employees, but automation allows JinkoSolar to do the same work with 200.
“We have ideas about the plant being the most efficient in the world,” Cockroft said in the interview. “There’s no shortage of demand in the U.S. for solar panels, so the market is here.”
JinkoSolar and Juno Beach-based NextEra Energy Inc., the parent company of Florida Power & Light Co., announced in March that NextEra would buy about 7 million solar panels from JinkoSolar over four years.
JinkoSolar, one of the world’s largest solar panel manufacturers with eight production facilities worldwide, has customers in 88 countries.
Cockroft said two other companies also have announced plans to build U.S. solar-panel plants.
Asked whether JinkoSolar had plans to expand the Jacksonville plant beyond the 200 employees, Cockroft said the company would “wait and see how efficient the plant can run.”