Part 10 in a series: First Solar spends more than $1 billion annually with over 1,000 U.S. suppliers across 35 states. In this ongoing series, we will explore the inspiring stories of companies growing in partnership with us.
What do Walmart, Apple, and First Solar have in common? As companies that manufacture and source equipment and materials inside the United States as well as locations around the world, they must deal with the gauntlet of customs rules and regulations in each port of call, and keep track of their freight as it ships through the export-import sequence. These high-profile firms share something else in common. Rather than deal with the complexities and headaches involved with customs compliance and international logistics on their own, they partner with Fortune 500 problem-solver Expeditors to help them along the way.
With business picking up in markets around the world, First Solar started working with Expeditors in the late 2000s, seeking expertise and assistance in the import-export aspects of its business. Although originally limited to moving shipments into and out of the First Solar’s module manufacturing plants in the U.S., Germany, and Malaysia, the logistics house now ships First Solar goods to and from some 15 different countries (including many new markets), according to Mike Litten, Expeditors’ corporate account manager. He recalls how the initial challenge of working with First Solar was “trying to understand the solar and alternative energy businesses, which are different from oil and gas, to understand the complexities of the supply chain, the cost mix, and the countries involved.”
The photovoltaic industry leader has experienced direct financial benefits as a result of Expeditors’ strong knowledge of customs rules and regulations. “In Malaysia, we set up a program that allows First Solar to benefit from duty-reduction programs. We were instrumental in helping First Solar understand the requirements of how to become eligible,” recalls Litten. “In most countries, we can bring local representation and local knowledge of the market, with respect to logistics and customs compliance, to help tie in our customers’ business to our business.”
While most people might not correlate “solar power” and “the war on terror,” there is a link: the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, or C-TPAT, is a voluntary supply-chain security program that Expeditors helped develop with U.S. Customs. “As we take possession of any cargo for First Solar, we have a global program in place that follows C-TPAT; a secure realm that allows us to pass along to our customers some of that security benefit. We vet our suppliers and our partners to make sure that the cargo is kept intact and secure throughout the supply chain,” explains Litten.
The logistics aces are “nonasset providers,” meaning Expeditors does not “own the planes or vessels that move the cargo,” he says. “We build relationships with those carriers and our customers, and use our volumes of buying power to provide First Solar with competitive rates and services for those movements. We act as anything from a booking agent to a full-fledged freight forwarder.” In the past 18 months alone, 71 different Expeditors offices globally have handled business for First Solar.
The account manager relates that Expeditors has been involved with the shipment of over 31,000 ocean containers for First Solar since 2008, about 70% of which contained pallets of those familiar thin-film solar panels. At 28 pallets, each holding 50 panels, that’s 1400 per container—which adds up to a whopping 30.5 million panels that have been expedited.
On the ground, Expeditors has a “bundle of different carriers” that it has partnered with to transport the solar cargo to the growing number of sites in the American Southwest where utility-scale PV power plants are under construction. Litten cites a particular trucking firm that “has had substantial growth in their own business because of their First Solar business.”
His team visited one of those desert projects in the early part of 2012. As he watched the onsite crew unloading pallets of modules onto the dry earth, he noticed that the workers were shrink-wrapping the stacked cartons for protection from the elements as they awaited deployment. This experience led Expeditors to recommend that in cases where panels might be at a job site in need the protective material, it would be more efficient for First Solar to have the shrink-wrapping done where the shipment originated, according to Litten.
It’s attention to cost-saving small details like this, along with the company’s customs compliance prowess, that helped earn Expeditors a coveted NOVA award as one of First Solar’s top suppliers in 2012.
Contributor Tom Cheyney is Chief Curator of SolarCurator.com and director of Impress Labs' solar practice. He is the former Senior Editor of PV-Tech.org/Photovoltaics International.