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The Future Is Bright For Solar Energy

Dec. 11, 2008
Photovoltaics and other alternative energy solutions offer economic and environmental advantages to manufacturers.

Before the presidential election, then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke of creating 5 million new jobs in renewable energy and nearly tripling the percentage of the nation's electricity supplied by renewables by 2025. Industry's challenge now is to accelerate sustainability initiatives to gain economic, environmental and even social progress.

One step toward that progress is the continuing groundswell in photovoltaics (i.e., solar cells), according to Bill Colavecchio, vice president and general manager, industrial products sector, with Underwriters Laboratories, a product safety certification organization. He's referring to the number of UL certifications clients are currently seeking on products involving photovoltaics. He describes a shortage of testing capacity -- "not enough testing laboratories and engineers worldwide to meet the optimal timeframes of testing and certification." As an example of solar's growth, he estimates that in California's Silicon Valley alone, the last 18 months have seen 80 photovoltaic startups.

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Colavecchio says the optimal timeframe for testing a module is about 90 days, but with the current worldwide backlog, lead times are stretching from six to nine months. Globally the annual growth rate is 30% for photovoltaics, according to Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank. In the United States, federal and state incentives provide additional motivation to adopt the technology, says Colavecchio. Globally, he expects a double-digit growth rate for all alternative energy sources at least for another decade.

Speeding the certification and testing process is the continuing challenge for UL, Colavecchio notes. "The question became: How do we make testing and certification as fast as possible?' That question led us to the July 2008 opening of a new UL photovoltaic plant in San Jose, Calif., but we quickly outgrew it. We knew that photovoltaic growth would eventually require an expansion, but we didn't anticipate that the market would force that decision in just four months. We had essentially sold out its capacity over night."

Silicon Valley alone has seen 80 photovoltaic startups in the past year, according to Bill Colavecchio, vice president and general manager of the industrial products sector at Underwriters Laboratories.In October 2008 the facility began a 13,500-square-foot expansion designed to provide 35% more space for testing and certification. Also included is a 31% year-over-year increase in project capacity since the laboratory's opening. The expansion will include six more test chambers -- bringing the total to 20 -- and include an additional solar simulation room. New job creation will double the number of technical positions. Following that expansion is the opening of a new photovoltaic testing and certification laboratory in China, Colavecchio says. Still in the evaluation stage: the opening of as many as four regional facilities that would house photovoltaic laboratories.

Colavecchio says the toughest part of the new laboratory decision is neither equipment nor money, but finding a trained workforce. "The photovoltaics industry is growing so rapidly that there is not enough of a skilled workforce -- designers, lab technicians, sales people and installers -- to keep up with needs," he explains. "In addition, photovoltaics are rarely a part of conventional university curriculums." He says UL is finding a curriculum solution by participating in SolarTech, a Silicon Valley consortium with members across the photovoltaic value chain. SolarTech is helping local community colleges by providing curriculum ideas and instructors.

For startups seeking testing and certification in a growing market, Colavecchio offers this advice: "Engage your certification company as early in your design process as possible. Consider that for new technologies and applications, current standards don't necessarily apply and new standards may have to be developed by the certification company. What we see all too often is the product coming to us at the end of the design cycle and ready to go into production. That risks delays if the product doesn't comply with safety, performance or quality requirements."

For companies unaccustomed to seeking certification, Colavecchio recommends meetings while the product is still in the concept stage. He says that step alone can have the biggest impact on how long certification takes. "When we have a first-pass failure, the issue is not only the additional time for retesting, but the additional time the manufacturer needs for redesign. Currently, the biggest problem in photovoltaics is time-to-market."

Materials also should be sourced with certification and testing in mind, says Colavecchio, citing the wire in a solar cell as an example. "If it hasn't been certified, then the procedure needs to be pursued by either the wire producer or the end product maker. The best way to proceed is to validate your supply chain decisions with the certifier."

UL recommends a three-stage collaboration process for new products destined for certification. "We want to sit down with the designers initially when they're in the early concept design stage so we can discuss the requirements in the technical and safety standards. Ideally the second meeting occurs at the prototype stage and the participants would conduct a construction review. Typical questions would involve the use of pre-certified components. Did they assemble the product in a manner that will be compliant with the physical requirements of the technical standard? The next stage is the actual testing." Colavecchio says certification is always faster with the three-stage process.

The Solar Shingle

Another sign of photovoltaics' acceptance and growth is revealed in the technology's integration into building materials. For example, chemical giant Dow Chemical Co. is developing solar energy collection technology called Building Integrated Photovoltaics where the solar cells also serve as the outer protective surface of a building. Alternative power generation is being incorporated directly into the design of commercial and residential building materials, such as roofing systems, exterior sidings and fascias.

"The approach enables lower fabrication and installation costs, because both the conventional and solar roofing shingles are installed at the same time," says Dow's Bob Cleereman, senior technical director of building integrated photovoltaic technology. "The result for the home or building owner is that solar-generated electricity costs no more than power generated by burning greenhouse gas-creating fossil fuels."

Triple Bottom Lines

Formulating an alternative energy strategy? "Think of it in terms of a triple bottom line, says Don Albinger, vice president, renewable energy, with Johnson Controls Inc., a manufacturer of car batteries and other automotive interior products. His reference is to organizations with motivational commitments to economic, environmental and social progress -- their triple bottom lines.

Urban wind power? Research at Cleveland State University seeks to complement current wind turbine designs with concepts for urban settings, says professor Maji Rashidi.Albinger says those three factors are the consistent motivators of customers seeking development and deployment of alternative energy from Johnson Controls. He says that No. 1 is the high cost of electricity and the volatility of natural gas and power prices in general today. "The second factor is a growing interest among companies to identify themselves with respect for environmental issues. They would like to portray and advertise themselves as part of the global warming solution. The third reason companies want us to be involved is that renewable energy projects can be reasonably complex both in terms of the technology and in terms of taking advantage of the growth of public backing and the expanse of federal and state incentives. These rewards include the production and investment tax credit extension for solar, geothermal and wind energy. In addition, at least 30 states require that public utilities generate a portion of their output, usually 10% to 20%, [from alternative energy] in the coming five to 10 years."

Albinger notes that not all organizations have equal commitment to the issues of cost reduction, the environment and improving their competitiveness. "Some organizations have chosen energy efficiency as a path to sustainability. Others are using on-site renewable sources such as biomass, solar and wind to generate their own sustainable power supplies. However, those organizations that have adopted both approaches are accelerating their progress toward sustainability," stresses Albinger. He says that in many cases on-site renewable energy facilities can be financed through cost savings from energy efficiency measures.

Albinger's example of the approach is Baltimore's Back River wastewater treatment plant. Working with Johnson Controls, the city has substantially improved energy efficiency through upgrades to the facilities and by installing an energy generation facility that is fueled by methane gas produced in the wastewater treatment process. The result: energy cost savings of $1.8 million annually, says Albinger.

Wind Power Advances

Analysts say 2007 marked the third consecutive year of U.S. leadership in wind power with enough installations to serve the equivalent of 4.5 million homes. Traditional wind turbines, however, have suffered from design characteristics that tend to make them inappropriate for effective integration into urban settings, says Cleveland State University's Majid Rashidi, professor, mechanical engineering.

Wind power researchers at Cleveland State University are leveraging the Bernoulli principle to amplify wind energy.For example, their large size, operating noise and safety considerations tend to restrict traditional designs to isolation in wind farms located far from population centers, Rashidi observes. Moreover, the power capacity of the traditional wind turbine is limited to the speed of the wind -- slight urban breezes do little to turn the massive windmill structures, he adds.

In developing a design resolution, Rashidi's intent wasn't to compete or attempt to create a substitute for the conventional large-scale wind turbines. Instead he has innovated a complementary design, one that can safely and easily enable wind power to be integrated into congested urban settings. In addition, he has developed a way to harness the relatively low wind speeds where conventional windmills stay stagnant.

His approach leverages the Bernoulli principle where any fluid flow toward and around a structure results in a higher power output and lower cut-in ambient wind speed. "Cut-in" is the minimum wind speed required to begin rotating a turbine and generate power, explains Rashidi. His design also eliminates the gearbox of conventional wind turbines. It directly couples the turbine blades to generators that are available off the shelf. He says a proof-of-concept model will be installed on a campus building in mid-2009.

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