3M Co. plans to build a plant in central China that will manufacture solar energy products, a move that expands the company's presence in the renewable energy market as well as its footprint.

The plant in Hefei, an industrial city between the Yangtze and Huaihe rivers, will be 3M's ninth in China. Construction is scheduled to begin in the second quarter.

3M's not alone in taking steps to become a major player in the renewable energy market. General Electric, already the largest maker of wind turbines in the U.S., announced plans on Thursday to build the nation's largest solar-panel factory.

The new 3M facility will produce a variety of renewable energy products, including Scotchshield, a film that protects the backsides of solar photovoltaic modules from moisture and contaminants. The film is designed for crystalline silicon modules, a type of solar panel that's made mostly in China. 3M now produces the film at a plant in Decatur, Ala. The new plant will supply some of those Chinese manufacturers, said Mike Roman, vice president of the Maplewood-based company's renewable energy division.

The new plant follows other recent investments by 3M in solar energy products at facilities in Columbia, Mo., Hilden, Germany, and in Singapore, where it opened a plant in 2009 and expanded the facility last year, Roman said.

3M's involvement in renewable energy goes back to the 1970s, but the company only recently identified it as a major growth opportunity, forming the division in 2009. In addition to solar, the division also manufactures products for the wind, geothermal and biofuels energy markets. At an investor conference in December, CEO George Buckley said the industrywide market for photovoltaic panels was expected to grow by 27 percent from 2010 to 2015.

3M established operations in China in 1984. Its operations there include manufacturing, business offices, technical service and R&D facilities.

China accounted for 6 percent of 3M's total sales of $26.7 billion in 2010, but its share is expected to increase to 9 percent by 2015. Earlier this year the company said it would spend up to $1.5 billion on capital expenditures this year, with 40 percent directed to developing economies like China.

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723