FocusChemical companies want a piece of the solar industry

27 October 2009 17:16  [Source: ICIS news]

(recasts paragraph 19 for clarity and adds more information)

By Lucy Craymer

LONDON (ICIS news)--With the photovoltaic (PV) industry set to experience exponential growth over the next 10 years, global specialty chemical and gas companies are clamouring to be involved, industry insiders said on Tuesday.

"The solar industry is very important for Merck because we see a very big future for it," said Emil Aust, the German specialty chemical company's senior manager of ionic liquids.

"This market has huge potential," he added.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre’s photovoltaic status report, which was released last month, said according to investment analysts and industry prognoses, solar energy would continue to grow at high rates in the coming years.

It added that the International Energy Agency had three different growth scenarios, with the most conservative predicting that PV capacity would triple by 2020.

“These projections show that there are huge opportunities for photovolatics in the future if the right policy measures are taken, but we have to bear in mind that such a development will not happen by itself,” the report stated.

Linde’s Dean O'Connor, who is head of technology and market development for PV at the specialty gases company, said the photovoltaic gases business had been doubling year on year and at times it had grown at an even higher rate than this.

“Gases have increased because thin film technology uses large amounts of gases,” he said.

“Even if we went home and did nothing else we would double [our PV business] next year,” he said, explaining that demand was very strong.

And although the global economic crisis has hit chemicals, the solar industry is still seeing increased demand.

Erwoan Pezron, global Managing Director of Arkema’s fluoropolymers, said there was no doubt that 2009 had been a difficult year but despite this the photovoltaic market had been able to grow.

But the speed of growth for the industry in the long term has a lot to do with government initiatives and legislative support for it.

“We don’t know which way the US is going to go – if the US invests heavily it will increase demand,” O’Connor said.

This was a sentiment echoed by Air Liquide’s worldwide head of photovoltaic, Olivier Blachier, who told ICIS news that the outlook was dependent on these decisions.

And so far the signs are positive. Earlier this month California state Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved a new subsidy for the solar industry and formed an allegiance with the federal government to fast track a number of renewable energy projects.

Furthermore, the G20’s economic recovery plan foresees yuan (CNY) 3,000bn ($439bn/€299bn) will be invested into new energy, including solar, over the next decade in China.

DuPont expects its PV business to reach $1bn by 2012 (up from $250m) partly through bolt-on acquisitions, while US major Dow Chemical believes its new solar shingles have potential sales of around $5bn by 2015 and $10bn-11bn by 2020.

But with the opportunities to increase revenue comes necessary investment and chemical companies are happy to pursue this.

DuPont has invested $120m to expand resin capacity for its Tedlar polyvinyl fluoride film business by over 50%; Air Liquide has commissioned an Air Separation Unit in Vietnam to supply a semiconductor assembly and test unit, along with announcing it is building a nitrogen unit in Germany to supply the solar cell industry; and Arkema announced it is to debottleneck its polymer polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) plant at its facility at Calvert City, Kentucky.

Blachier said the company had three areas of planned investment – to increase capacity at existing units as customers need it, to build new units worldwide and to develop new products.

“We don’t want to be just a gases supplier. We want to be able to provide materials and become a real partner,” he said.

“Whereever they go in the world, Air Liquide will be there to provide the materials,” he added.

Arkema is also developing globally to meet the downstream needs of the photovoltaic industry. Pezron said Arkema had major clients in Germany but it was seeing more manufacturing happening in Asia.

($1 = €0.67, $1 = CNY6.83)

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By: Lucy Craymer
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