Production at Illuminate USA, one of the largest solar panel factories in the U.S., is expected to start in January, and crews are hard at work setting up the massive, $220 million Licking County plant that will eventually produce more than 9 million solar panels a year.

During a Nov. 20 tour of the plant, The Advocate saw the progress of the 1.1 million-square-foot plant, which was announced in March and is the first company within the 350-acre Red Chip Farms development as part of the Pataskala Corporate Park.

Illuminate USA’s total investment in Licking County is expected to top $600 million with the cost of equipment, raw materials, staff training and salaries, and everything else needed to start a new company, said Eric Heis, the company’s head of public affairs.

Heis said there is a demand in the U.S. to warrant that investment.

“Not only is this just about onshoring and bringing manufacturing here and starting that part of the supply chain,” he said, “it’s about (that) there’s a demand here in the U.S. for solar energy.”

Inside, internal walls have been constructed and there will be rooms for each phase of the solar panel making process: receiving area for raw materials, initial assembly, lamination, curing and quality assurance, and distributing the completed product.

They’ve also built hallways to connect each phase, bathrooms and supervisor offices as well as rooms for water pumps, air compressors, and information technology.

Office space for administrative employees is also being built in the building’s northeast corner.

More than 1.85 million feet of electrical wiring has gone into the factory. That’s more than 350 miles of wiring, or enough for a roundtrip from Pataskala to Pittsburgh.

The factory will have a total of eight assembly lines that are parallel to each other and the panels will move from west to east inside the factory as they go through each phase of the process.

The assembly lines stretch nearly 1,000 feet and have a curved pattern where each panel will travel around 1,775 feet, or 1/3 of a mile, in normal process flow from start to finish.

Heis said it will take about six hours for panels to be built from start to finish. When all eight lines are operating, Illuminate USA expects to make more than 1,000 solar panels per hour, he said.

Panels will start rolling off lines one and two in January as construction workers will continue to set up the additional six lines throughout 2024, Heis said.

By 2025, Illuminate USA’s goal to produce about 9.2 million solar panels a year, or 5 gigawatts. A gigawatt is equal to one billion watts.

“That’s enough to power a million homes, every year coming out of this place,” Heis said.

Panels built at the factory will be used for utility-scale solar operations, so that panels will be larger than residential solar panels. Illuminate USA’s panels will measure about 7.5 feet by 3.7 feet and weight about 72 pounds each.

In its own efforts to use clean energy, solar panels built by Illuminate USA employees will eventually be added to the factory’s roof.

Invenergy, a Chicago-based developer of several solar projects in Ohio, will be the primary customer for Illuminate USA’s panels.

“They have projects all over the country and they do those renewable projects, so they need utility solar panels,” Heis said.

Invenergy is also one of the joint investors in the new company.

The other investor is LONGi, a Chinese solar panel manufacturer. Residents of Pataskala and other areas of Licking County have packed recent Pataskala City Council meetings over concerns about the Chinese company.

Heis previously said Illuminate is a new, legitimate, American company setting up its headquarters in Pataskala.

When the company was announced in March, it was expected to employee 850 people. Now, Illuminate USA plans to hire more than 1,000 employees, and hiring is actively ongoing.

The plant will produce panels 24 hours a day. Employees will work 12-hour shifts for two days and then have two days off, Heis said. The shift changes are likely to happen at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Starting wages for production employees will be in the mid-$20 an hour range, he said.

By the numbers

  • 6: Number of hours to make a solar panel from start to finish
  • 72: Weight of each solar panel
  • 250: Number of construction workers building the Illuminate USA factory
  • 947: Number of feet of each assembly line
  • More than 1,000: Number of people that will be employed by Illuminate USA and also number of panels that will be made each hour once the factory is at full scale in 2025
  • 1,775: Number of feet each panel will travel during production because the assembly lines’ curved pattern
  • 1.1 million: Square feet of the factory
  • 1.85 million: Number of feet of electrical wiring in the factory
  • 9.2 million: Number of solar panels the company expects to make in 2025.