Sharp Solar, based in Japan, was, until this year, the #1 manufacturer of solar cells worldwide. They are pioneers in the solar manufacturing industry, beginning research in 1959 and mass production in 1963. Sharp began designing and producing panels for residential solar energy systems in the mid-1990s. In addition to silicon solar panels, Sharp has also moved into the realm of thin-film solar cells.
As of February 2008, the German PV manufacturer Q-Cells surpassed Sharp as the #1 producer of solar cells. Founded in 1999, Q-Cells is a very young company which has risen like wildfire along with the solar industry itself. Although branching out into other solar technologies, the company has focused mainly on silicon cells. In fact, recent ascent to the top is likely due to their ability to acquire an adequate amount of silicon during the recent polysilicon shortage.
Right up there with Sharp and Q-Cells is Suntech Power Corporation. Like Q-Cells, Suntech has focused primarily on silicon based solar cells and, only founded in 2001, is even younger than its German counterpart. Suntech is also diversifying within the solar industry and last year began construction on a thin film cell production plant. These are just the top three.
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There are a slew of notable solar manufacturers around the world including BP Solar, Shell Solar, Kyocera Solar, Mitsubishi Solar, and GE Solar, which are offshoots of larger corporations. There is a noticeable lack of US companies among the list of top solar manufacturers, although several companies have divisions based in the United States.
This is not to say that the US is a slouch in the solar industry. The main reason the US is behind in manufacturing is that other countries like Germany and China were faster and more aggressive in subsidizing the solar industry. Nonetheless, the US market is growing as fast as anywhere and is a leader in the thin film, building integrated PV sector.
First Solar is a US and worldwide leader in thin film technology. Originally founded in Ohio, First Solar has a plant in Germany and plans to build more in Malaysia. And yet they are not alone.The US is a hotbed for solar energy activity, whether it be photovoltaics or thermal.
Since 2006, when federal tax incentives kicked in, new solar companies have hatched like farm chickens and the domestic solar industry has grown faster than a tree in the rainforest. As technologies develop in the US progress and the demand for renewable energy inevitably grows, then you will likely find more US solar manufacturers competing with the top dogs on a global scale.