Investing in solar
“Glass and energy” was a theme high on the agenda at the 20th glasstec in Düsseldorf, Germany, Oct. 21-25. The “glass technology live” show symposium offered insight into the future of glass technology. Organizer Stephan Behling, senior partner, Foster and Partners, London, and his team from the Institute for Building Construction at the Stuttgart University, Germany, compiled an array of current product developments, architectural projects and tomorrow’s technologies, including a lot of solar.
“There’s more hype in solar than business, with the exception of Germany and Spain,” said Russell J. Ebeid, president, Glass Group, Guardian Industries Corp., Auburn Hills, Mich. “But I believe it’ll come; it’s not a fad.” The solar hullabaloo reminds him of Silicone Valley in the 1970s, he said. “You met IT folks who thought they’d all be Dell; but the number of manufacturers slimmed down. Same way with solar, they all think they’ll be billionaires in three years.”
Chris Mammen, president, M3 Glass Technologies, Irving, Texas, shared a similar opinion: “I’m worried that the industry is buying into something too quickly as far as solar is concerned,” he said. “The industry is expending millions in this, but is this going to turn around for all? For some, it might; for others it might be the final nails in their coffin.”
Ebeid believes it’ll be about seven years before solar takes off as a viable source of alternative energy. As research continues, solar prices will come down and electricity prices will keep going up; they’ll meet at some point, he said. “There will be a race for intellectual property and patenting.”
The U.S. is starting to wake up as far as solar power is concerned, Ebeid said, and much of it is in the south. “Florida wants to produce solar energy but they have hurricane codes and they’re looking for laminated solar panels,” he said. “No one does that yet; it is being developed.”
There are a few solar technologies available in the market: solar panels, silicon wafers, CSP, troughs, etc., and no one technology will work everywhere, he said (Click here to read about photovoltaic growth in the U.S). “If you’re in New York, you can’t put a solar field, for instance. In a crowded city, you might have a car port that feeds the adjacent apartments.
“If I take all the technologies, I don’t know which would win,” Ebeid said. “So you put little bit of money in each. Someday, all those will consolidate and become two or three kinds and some big company will buy up the smaller companies and become a giant like GE,” he said. “Guardian’s placing small bets on all.”
Current solar jobs being bid in the U.S. will consume at least eight float plants in the world, Ebeid said.
The global players are well aware of the trend, Ebeid said; Cardinal, Guardian, PPG, Pilkington are all into solar. “Asahi and Saint-Gobain are big players,” he said. “First Solar’s a big name. Applied Materials, that makes coating machines, are looking at [Guardian] to make a specialized coating for their machines.” When you are a global player, you can suck off of each other, he said. “The smaller players will become commodity manufacturers.”
The Europeans, who have the technology, see the opportunity in the U.S., and are coming to the U.S., Ebeid said. Rio of Spain has gone into Mexico, and Flabeg of Germany has gone into the U.S.
However, all solar projects rely on government subsidies because the cost is not comparable to fossil fuel rates, Ebeid said. “When you have to rely on the government, they’re pretty fickle because they rely on people who elect them.”
Bill Yanek, executive vice president, Glass Association of North America, Topeka, Kan., agreed. “Since mid-1980s, the U.S. has lost ground to the Europeans in solar technology/alternative energy,” he said. “It’s the use and the government support that’s helping Europe. So, I don’t know that the technology’s that much better in Europe.” However, the U.S. Department of Energy’s looking for federal research grant money to ramp up the effort and foster support for the industrial work groups in ASTM standards on solar glass, he said. “DOE got a tax credit for renewable energy in the recent bailout. Their technical folks are looking at how to increase the efficiency of photovoltaic cells.”
John Faour, president, Faour Glass, Tampa, Fla., had a similar opinion: “The Europeans spend more money on construction because they get government money. They want that building to last, so they’re interested in energy savings more so than trying to make it cost-effective. So much of what we do in America is return on investment.”
On the glaziers’ front, “the subject of PV technology and other energy conserving glass developments can be developed by us by exposing these developments to our customer base,” Faour said. “While we may not be qualified to provide specific design and application criteria, we can expose the concepts and perhaps provide contacts for them to get more education.” This consultative approach can help glaziers get closer to the customers and together learn how to apply these technologies in the future, he said. For the right customer this should help to develop the relationship and create loyalty. “In this day of shrinking work load and highly competitive bidding any edge that can be created can be invaluable,” he said. “A glazing firm that is on the cutting edge of what’s new will be highly sought after versus the ones that take a reactive approach to our industry.”
Click here to read about the state of solar glass in Germany.