Solar: A bright future

March 01, 2010

The amount of solar energy that falls on the planet in one hour is enough to generate sufficient power for every person on earth for one year.

Of all the reasons that solar energy is capturing record levels of investment and spurring frenetic activity, its tremendous potential, laid out by Dan Cunningham of BP Solar (Frederick, MD), is the primary driver for the market. Participating in the Chemical Development & Marketing Assn.’s (CDMA) “Opportunities for Chemicals and Materials: Capitalizing on Wind and Solar” conference held last December at the University of Pennsylvania’s chemistry department, Cunningham addressed a crowd that included the biggest names in plastics supply—BASF, Bayer MaterialScience, Dow, and DuPont to name a few—all of which appreciate the extraordinary opportunity the burgeoning solar energy sector holds for plastics.

DuPont Tedlar polyvinyl fluoride films see use as backsheets for photovoltaic modules.

DuPont’s photovoltaic encapsulants act as a glue for solar modules, sealing them against the elements.

Ascent Solar utilizes DuPont’s Solamet PV metallizations to help enhance the efficiency of thin-film PV modules.

As impressive as the current boom is, Mike Eckhart, president of ACORE (American Council of Renewable Energy), forecasted an even brighter future for solar at the same CDMA event, particularly for the United States, which has only recently thrown the full weight of government subsidies and tax benefits behind the technology. “My prediction is in two years, solar will really take off,” Eckhart said. Admitting that the U.S. is the “laggard” in solar, Eckhart said he believes the country will catch up to the current market leader, Germany, which had 2000 MW of new solar capacity installed in 2009.

Eckhart has stood at the intersection of government and renewable energy before, starting with the Carter administration in the late 1970s, when the U.S., still shell shocked from its impotence during the oil embargoes, found religion with renewable energy. Carter placed solar panels on the White House in 1979, but his successor, Ronald Reagan, had them removed in 1986, and renewable energy symbolically, and in reality, faded into the background once again.

Following the most recent oil shock in 2008 and with growing concern that the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel-derived energy could be having a deleterious effect on the planet’s climate, the U.S. government has once again taken an interest in renewable energy. The Dept. of Energy’s stated goal is that by 2025, 25% of the energy generated in the U.S. will be from renewable resources. At a state level, 29 local governments have already mandated that local utilities source a certain percentage of the energy they create from those same resources.

In late November, Eckhart and ACORE conducted a policy meeting in the Cannon Caucus room at the U.S. House of Representatives, sketching out the policy framework that could start the country on that energy roadmap. ACORE has determined that the U.S. will need to invest $30 billion-$35 billion to attain that 25% goal. In 2008, $18 billion was invested in energy projects, with 50% in renewable energy.

At the CDMA event, Mark Thirsk, managing partner with Linx

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