A sunny outlook in the energy and environmental debate

05 February 2007 00:00  [Source: ICB Americas]

Generating renewable energy sources is a key initiative for countries around the world. Solar energy is quickly becoming one of the most promising platforms in the energy and environment debate


THE BIGGEST star in the solar system is fast becoming one of the most promising resources for renewable energy around the world. People are looking for ways to harness the sun's energy and chemical producers are expanding polysilicon capacity to meet the demand.

The biggest retailers are even looking to solar. Wal-Mart announced that it is looking for solar suppliers to outfit all of its stores under a plan to become more energy efficient.

According to Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI), the global market for polysilicon in 2005 was approximately $1.144bn. Of this amount, in 2005, approximately one quarter to polysilicon produced for the solar power market segment.

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Growing demand

"However, in the coming years the demand for solar grade polysilicon is expected to grow more rapidly than the demand in the electronics market segment," says an official at Wacker-Chemie, a major producer of polysilicon. "According to analysts, the demand for solar-grade poly will catch up by 2008 and will surpass electronic-grade poly demand in the following years."

Analysts from Jeffries & Company believe that solar industry demand is likely to outpace the production of polysilicon through at least 2010. Because of this strong demand, the price of polysilicon is likely to remain at high levels through this period, the group notes.

Flare-up in capacity

Silicon producers are expanding manufacturing capabilities at a global level to meet the growing demands from the solar industry. Solar cell producers are also working to increase output.

Wacker is currently expanding its capacities in three parallel projects to speed up delivery of high-quality polysilium to the solar market and to enable its customers' growth, company officials say.

Wacker's polysilicon business generated total sales of over €288m ($378m) in 2005. Polysilicon sales accounted for roughly two-thirds of these sales, according to company officials. Currently, about 40% of Wacker's polysilicon is solar-grade poly. As Wacker is increasing its polysilicon capacity significantly in the next years, the solar-grade poly ratio will increase as well.

Degussa decided to expand its trichlorosilane capacities, and to additionally construct a new monosilane production facility from the ground up, the company said. In 2003 Degussa and SolarWorld founded a joint venture company, Joint Solar Silicon. SolarWorld recently took over Shell's solar operations, and now ranks as one of the three largest producers and suppliers of solar technology in the world, according to Degussa.

As polysilicon producers work to ramp up manufacturing capabilities, solar cell producers are doing the same. In late October, Sharp announced that it had increased annual production capacity for solar cells at its Katsuragi Plant by 100 megawatts (MW) to meet burgeoning demand in Japan and abroad. As a result, the company said solar cell production capacity at the Katsuragi Plant will reach 600 MW per year the world's highest.

In Europe and the US, demand is expected to expand even further, centered on industrial and commercial uses, thanks to the introduction of subsidies and implementation of policies mandating power buy-back programs by utilities, Sharp noted.

The demand for solar energy and photovoltaics is strong in its own right, but the escalating attention from governments worldwide is adding fuel to the fire.

One of the most well-known government incentives is the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) which started in 2000, a Wacker official says. Countries such as Italy, Spain, Korea, China and the US have introduced similar incentives or may.

In late August, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 1, putting the finishing touches on the Million Solar Roofs Plan. In 2005, the Governor asked the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to implement his Million Solar Roofs plan, which will lead to 1 million solar roofs in California by 2018.

"When I ran for governor, I vowed to make the environment the centerpiece of my administration and turn back the clock on pollution," said Gov. Schwarzenegger. "My Million Solar Roofs Plan will provide 3,000 megawatts of additional clean energy and reduce the output of greenhouse gases by 3 million tons which is like taking 1 million cars off the road."

Also, the European Union announced plans to increase the ratio of electricity produced by renewable energy sources from 12% (2003) to 22% in 2010, a Wacker official notes. According to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), this is only feasible, if the amount of electricity produced by solar energy sources will expand significantly over the next years.

Meeting challenges

The general challenge is to reach so-called grid parity, according to Wacker officials. The cost of solar energy must become competitive to fossil energy sources without public subsidies. Technically, the industry is prepared to produce enough polysilicon for the further growth of the photovoltaic market, but the market conditions have to fit to the financial targets of the potential producers.

Solar energy hit a landmark on July 27, 2006, when for the first time solar power was much cheaper on the Leipzig Energy Exchange than nuclear, gas or coal power, according to Degussa.

The key challenge now is for silicon producers to increase the solar market.


Raise the environmental roof

Environmentalists may point to large metropolitan areas as a source of infinite pollution, but city dwellers around the US aren't oblivious to the problems. Some are working to counteract them through green roof initiatives for green living.

What is a green roof initiative? The Earth Pledge Green Roofs Initiative supports the development of green, vegetated rooftops in urban areas to prevent storm-water runoff pollution, to lower urban temperatures, and to improve air quality.

Widespread green roof development in New York and other cities aims to provide an array of economic, aesthetic, and social benefits to city dwellers, according to Earth Pledge, a group that supports sustainable development by identifying and implementing innovative technologies that balance human and natural systems.

A green roof - also known as a vegetated or eco-roof - is a lightweight, engineered roofing system that allows for the growth of rooftop vegetation, while protecting the integrity of the underlying roof.

Environment Canada found that a one-story building with a grass roof and 3.9 inches of growing medium could result in a 25% reduction in summer cooling needs, according to Earth Pledge.

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