Solar industry offers 'huge' potential for glass companies

By Katy Devlin, commercial glass & metals editor, Glass Magazine
October 20, 2008
COMMERCIAL, FABRICATION

Convention illustrates need for glass products and services at all levels

View a photo gallery from Solar Power International 2008.

Despite a toughening construction market, exhibitors at the Solar Power International 2008 convention in San Diego, say the solar industry is booming and offers numerous possibilities for glass companies.

About 450 companies exhibited at the conference Oct. 13-16, drawing 22,500 attendees—10,000 more than last year, according to a Solar Power International news release. Solar Power International is now in its fifth year and hosted by Washington D.C.'s Solar Electric Power Association and Solar Energy Industries Association. Visit the Solar Power International Web site for more information.

Chris Frank, chief technology officer for Open Energy Corp., Grass Valley, Calif., says the solar industry needs more participation from all segments of the glass industry. “There are opportunities for glass companies at many levels. [The solar industry] needs lead-free clear glass for the side of the module that faces the sun. We need laminators that can handle the EVA interlayers, [a type of poly-Si thin-film solar cells on glass] … When we’re using PV in curtain walls, we need a glass team that can do the installation,” Frank says.

Brian Lynch, public relations manager for Schott North America Inc., Elmsford, N.Y., agrees. “Solar is an exciting, fast-paced industry that is still in its infancy,” Lynch says. “There are huge opportunities for the flat glass industry in solar.” Schott’s solar business develops products for photovoltaic solar electricity—crystalline photovoltaic modules, as well as building integrated photovoltaics—and receivers for solar thermal power plants.

“For the glass industry, this is a fast-growing business,” says Berend Dros, product manager for Saint-Gobain, France. “Saint-Gobain started in the glass business in 1665 … we were destined to go into PV.” Saint-Gobain makes glass for photovoltaic modules and has also started producing parabolic mirrors that are used to collect solar energy. The company will open a facility in Portugal in 2009 specifically for parabolic mirror production.

The market for solar has been strong in Europe and is expected to boom in the United States next, says Dirk Vollbrecht, CFO of Ecostream US Inc., West Sacramento, Calif. “The U.S. market will become the largest in the world in the next three years,” Vollbrecht says. “It’s just going to explode here, while we’ll see stabling conditions in Europe.”

One area where the glass industry is getting involved in solar is developing the best-performing outer lites for photovoltaic modules. Several glass manufacturers attended the show to promote their low-reflectivity glass that can be used as the top layer on PV modules. Low-reflectivity glass maximizes the sunlight that can reach the solar cells. China’s Changzhou Almaden PV Glass Co. displayed their PV glass that has a reflectivity of 0.5 percent, compared to 4 percent for traditional glass. CSG Solar Glass and XYG Glass, both of China, also displayed their anti-reflective, low-iron glass products. 

Saint-Gobain showed its specially patterned glass products that would be used on the exterior surface of a PV module. The patterns trap light, increasing panel efficiency.

GS Solar of China displayed their TZO glass in which EVA solar cells are integrated between two glass panels, similarly to laminated interlayers.

The solar industry also needs glass companies to make products for building integrated photovoltaics. Diane Bastiaanssen, executive vice president of Solar Solutions Energy Innovators, Winnipeg, Manitoba, says designers demand custom glass options when it comes to BIPV. “The key for glass companies is options. We need glass that will allow 20 percent to 30 percent light transmission, or 70 percent light transmission,” Bastiaanssen says.

Joe Morrissey, former vice president of sales for Atlantis Energy, says architects are also demanding coatings for glass that would look like solar panels, particularly important in BIPV.
“What we need are [glass] coatings that we can work with. Architects want coatings on the glass that will make the PV disappear,” Morrissey says.

Many companies also displayed water heating skylights—solar collectors that act as a water heater in residential and commercial locations. Many of the products feature traditional skylight frames, and contain glass on the outer layer.

Glass equipment manufacturers have also found their way into the solar industry. Reis Robotics USA, Elgin, Ill., produces handling equipment for both industries. Germany’s Grenzebach, a manufacturer of processing equipment for the glass industry, has also started making machines for the solar industry. 

Crane Tech Solutions, Portsmouth, Va., displayed handling equipment for solar panels. Robert Kohler, vice president, says glass installers often perform solar panel installations, particularly in commercial applications. The lifting tools CTS provides for solar installations could also be used for glazing applications, Kohler says.

Read an article from the October issue of Glass Magazine that details the solar market and its opportunities for glass companies.