First Solar Inc., the world's second-largest manufacturer of solar panels, is considering building a factory in Mesa, bringing about 600 new jobs to metro Phoenix, according to sources close to the deal.
Should its latest plans come to fruition, Mesa would be home to the fast-growing company's second U.S. solar-panel factory. It opened its first in Perrysburg, Ohio.
First Solar has about 5,500 employees worldwide, with about four-fifths of them outside the United States. About 190 are based in Arizona.
The company announced in October that it planned to build two new manufacturing plants, one in the U.S. and the other in Vietnam, and that each will have about 600 workers.
Texas and Arizona were reportedly in the running for that U.S. plant.
First Solar spokesman Ted Meyer on Friday declined to confirm that the company is zeroing in on Mesa.
"We have not made a decision yet," he said.
Valley sources familiar with the situation confirmed that the panel maker is preparing to announce a deal, but details and terms reportedly are still being negotiated.
Mesa officials and members of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the region's lead economic-development group, declined to comment.
If the company is close to sealing a deal, an announcement likely will not come until after Thursday, when publicly traded First Solar reports its fourth-quarter earnings.
Because of federal securities regulations, public companies have to be careful when they publicize developments that can move stock prices.
Roc Arnett, president of the East Valley Partnership, an economic-development group that promotes Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and other southeast Valley communities, said that he did not know any details about the project but that such a manufacturing plant would be welcome in his region.
"I have heard presentations by their senior people, and they are quite an amazing company," he said.
Arnett said there are a number of vacant industrial spaces in the region that could house such a manufacturing plant, including spots near Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in southeast Mesa, Chandler Municipal Airport in Chandler and the Falcon Field Airport in Mesa.
"If something like this does happen, you just know they are going to be the kind of good corporate citizens that Intel and Boeing have been for many years in the southeast Valley," he said.
Manufacturing jobs are eagerly sought by states and municipalities because they tend to be higher paying.
Manufacturers also usually are exporters, bringing in money from outside the state.
First Solar, founded in 1999, has grown to become the world's second-largest solar manufacturer after Suntech Power Holdings Corp. of China.
First Solar has been searching for months for a U.S. site to build a 238-megawatt factory to open in 2012.
Solar-manufacturing plants are compared by the amount of megawatts produced by the panels they make, not by the number of panels.
First Solar has projected it will produce solar panels totaling 2,742 megawatts in 2012. The new U.S. factory would represent about 9 percent of its total manufacturing capacity that year. One megawatt can generate enough energy for about 250 homes at once in direct sunlight.
So far, the bulk of First Solar's products have been sold and manufactured overseas. But the company has reported a growing market in the United States, largely because utilities are being required to produce power from renewable energy.
Jordan Rose, an attorney who represents several renewable-energy companies in Arizona, said most manufacturing has been done overseas because of lower production and labor costs there. Now that panels are getting cheaper to build because of increased manufacturing efficiencies, production can be moved back to the U.S.
"You don't have to be in China to make a panel economically (anymore)," she said.
First Solar's main competitor, Suntech Power Holdings, opened a small factory recently in Goodyear and plans to make 50 megawatts of solar panels a year and employ 150 people.
Landing another solar-manufacturing plant would bring more than just the 600 jobs, Rose said. Manufacturing plants tend to attract research-and-development jobs as well as parts suppliers.
She lauded the growing synergy of solar companies that metro Phoenix is attracting.
"We are watching our sunshine become our economic driver," Rose said. "It's no longer just about tourism and folks who want to live in our great climate."
It's unknown if any state incentives are being offered to the company.
Scottsdale-based economist Jim Rounds said that, if they are, the state needs to make sure taxpayers are getting their money's worth by ensuring the new jobs are high-paying positions.
Nevertheless, he said, a manufacturing plant would be welcome news.
"We have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs over the years," Rounds said. "If this project is real, this is a further way of diversifying our base. But one company locating here is not going to significantly diversify our base. We need to land 20 or 30 like this before we will start to see significant improvements in our economy."