First Solar Plans Middle East Office to Help Tap Regional Market

First Solar Inc., the largest maker of thin-film solar panels, plans to open an office in the United Arab Emirates this year to tap growing demand for power in the Middle East.

The company is in talks with potential partners to help win contracts and is considering opening a manufacturing plant in the region, Karim Asali, technical development manager, said today in a telephone interview from Abu Dhabi. First Solar said last month it is cutting about 30 percent of its workforce as demand in Europe slows.

Solar companies are seeking to expand in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia and its neighbors diversify power sources. Saudi Arabia is planning to add 41 gigawatts of solar power over the next two decades, according to officials at the agency developing the plan.

“Saudi Arabia is clearly the biggest solar market in the Middle East,” Asali said. “This is the first time we’ve seen numbers for solar power developments on the gigawatt scale in this region,” he said, referring to the Saudi plan.

Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Jordan will probably have 2 to 3 gigawatts of facilities under development in the next two to three years, he said. Completing the plants will take another year or more.

The Tempe, Arizona-based company, which built a 5 megawatt solar plant for Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy venture Masdar, will focus on developing utility-size solar plants, as it does in the U.S., Asali said. First Solar’s thin-film technology competes with polysilicon panels that are made mostly in China.

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