A first look inside the controversial Fort Mill solar manufacturing facility

FORT MILL, S.C. — Nestled in a business park off Interstate 77 in Fort Mill, a 786,000-square-foot warehouse sits mostly quiet.

Right now, the building looks more like a distribution center. Silfab Solar Inc. hopes it becomes the company’s first solar cell manufacturing facility.

There are a few offices, thousands of solar panels stacked up in aisles across the warehouse and about a dozen machines sitting idle in the warehouse, wrapped in foil in the hope that the company gets the go-ahead to start construction.

Meanwhile across York County, hundreds of opponents have spent months trying to ensure that go-ahead never comes.

Why Fort Mill?

COO Treff MacDonald said Silfab Solar Inc. has been planning to onshore solar cell manufacturing for years.

While Silfab’s factories in Washington have been physically assembling panels for a while, the photovoltaic cells that absorb solar energy and convert it to power have historically been made in Asia. With the rise in demand for clean energy and incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s a new push to bring that process back to U.S. factories.

Silfab promised a big economic development project with 800 high-paying jobs. MacDonald said back in 2022, a lot of communities were interested.

“We were recruited by York County Economic Development that brought us here to Fort Mill,” he said. “We were looking specifically for a prebuilt facility of a certain size. That prebuilt facility of a certain size had had to be in, at a minimum, in a light industrial zone area.”


MacDonald said York County suggested the warehouse on Logistics Lane, and by the end of 2022, Silfab Solar Inc. agreed, filed a zoning application for the facility, got county approval, and moved in.

What about the schools?

Off Gold Hill Road, Fort Mill Schools is building two new schools, separated from the Silfab Solar property by just a line of trees. This proximity has been at the center of most community concerns about the project but MacDonald said, during the recruitment process, it never really came up.

“It wasn’t a topic of focus or conversation, per se,” he said. “I cannot say that that it was ever thought that one could or couldn’t coexist with the other.”

Tensions escalated as the company applied for its construction permit with the air quality bureau at the Department of Health and Environmental Control towards the end of 2023. Neighbors read more about the chemicals the company would store and use on-site and began to worry about potential dangers to the hundreds of children who would be learning and playing just next door.

The school district has said in statements that it will defer to government agencies like DHEC and York County Zoning to identify and mitigate any potential threat associated with the location. Zoning for the schools was approved after Silfab’s approval.

What exactly does Silfab hope to do in this facility?

The company plans to convert the existing warehouse into a solar cell and panel manufacturing facility which means both the cells and panels will be assembled on site.

The photovoltaic cells are made from layers of silicon wafers, which will not be fabricated on site. MacDonald says workers will use machinery to assemble those layers in what’s known as a “clean room,” a highly filtered room typical in electronics manufacturing.

The goal is to keep any particles off the highly sensitive devices. This is also where the chemicals of concern come in.

Hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen chloride are both strong acids used to keep the wafers and the cells clean. MacDonald said the acid used in the process is heavily diluted to about 4 percent concentration and then the chemicals are neutralized as they wash over the cells. Any remaining acid is cleaned out in an acid scrubber.

Silane, which is government-regulated as a toxic gas is used to produce a film over the solar cells. When the panels are assembled, it remains sealed inside the glass.

When DHEC approved Silfab’s synthetic minor construction permit in March, the regulated determined the company’s storage and pollution management methods would keep emissions well below state and federal standards.

“I’d be comfortable to have my child and my family located here and in these schools,” MacDonald said.

Are neighbors satisfied with DHEC’s assessment?

A vocal group of them certainly aren’t happy with the assessment.

One of the sticking points is that DHEC’s rules are not location-specific and do not factor the proximity of the facility to schools. DHEC asserted that was a zoning issue for the county. (More on that later).

Another issue some opponents latched onto was language in the DHEC’s response to public comments describing a 70-foot acid scrubber stack. Opponents have depicted the project with a towering smokestack in many of their protests. Macdonald said that’s not only a misinterpretation of the company’s plans, but slander.

“There’s no smokestack in the facility, that’s very defamatory in nature,” he said.

MacDonald explained the acid scrubber as a tube next to the building roughly the same size, which is used to neutralize any remaining acid leftover from the process.

“It won’t have smoke emitting from it. It has a water vapor emitting from it as it passes through,” he said.

Still concerned, neighbors appealed Silfab’s zoning to York County’s Board of Zoning Appeals. The board voted unanimously that solar cell manufacturing, Silfab’s intended purpose, should not be considered “light industrial” and therefore it cannot be allowed in the Logistics Lane facility.

Where do things stand now?

According to MacDonald, Silfab still plans to move forward. He said the ZBA decision is not final and still expects the facility to produce solar panels by the end of the year.

According to a spokesman with York County, the company has until the end of the month to appeal the decision but the next ruling won’t come from the county, but the state circuit court.

When asked why, despite the clear backlash against the project, Silfab was still planning to move forward, MacDonald said he believes the truth about what the company is offering, hundreds of high-paying jobs, skilled employment in a growing industry, and a safe working environment will win out in the end.

“At the day, we know we’re not going to win everybody over,” he said. “We’re focused on the balance of the majority that’s ready to listen to reason and logic.”

The company has also already made significant site-specific investment, and while Silfab has not started constructing their manufacturing facility at Logistics Lane just yet, MacDonald said it’s already too late to start over.

“There was another place to go three years ago when, when we were going through the recruitment process,” he said. “We’ve achieved every milestone the county put forth … at this point, it’s very difficult, virtually impossible, to wind the clock back and restart a process that is a year and a half down the road already.”

(WATCH: Funding secured to convert slag heap into solar farm)

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.

Comments on this article