Serious About Solar

Dec. 21, 2004

With one eye toward the sun and another toward his company's bottom line, British Petroleum Co. PLC's Group CEO John Browne is showing his peers in industry that profitability and environmental stewardship do mix. Consistent with its recent leadership position on limiting emissions of greenhouse gases, BP is stepping up its investments in photovoltaics technology and solar-panel production. On Jan. 30, the London-based company opened its first solar manufacturing facility in the U.S. in Fairfield, Calif. Vice President Al Gore threw the switch to begin production. Operated by BP Solar, a wholly owned subsidiary, the plant represents a $20 million investment. The company already had six facilities outside of the U.S. producing solar panels. The 65,000-sq-ft plant, which will employ 100 people by the end of this year, is expected to produce 10 megawatts worth of solar panels a year. "The fact that the Vice President would come to our opening was a boost to photovoltaics' image and credibility," says Tom Vonderhaar, vice president of sales and marketing for BP Solar. The plant will be one of the largest producers of thin-film photovoltaic cells, which are less expensive to produce than other types. "Thin film is just another way to get at the same thing," he says. "Raw-material costs are low, and the process can be easily automated. We don't use silicon at all." Although cells created using thin-film technology tend to be less than 10% efficient, BP Solar expects its thin-film cells to perform better soon. "We think we can get our thin-film efficiency into the double digits fairly quickly," says Vonderhaar. From an aesthetics standpoint, panels made with thin film are less intrusive than older-technology panels. "We think this will be successful in the architectural market," says Vonderhaar, becase the panels resemble black glass. With solar sales at approximately $80 million last year, BP expects revenues to increase to $1 billion a year in another decade. Thomas J. Koch, New York-based director of environmental and corporate communications for BP America Inc., says BP Solar intends to capture as much of the residential solar market as possible, especially in California. BP already has installed solar panels on a service station in Cumming, Ga., and another in Nashville, and will have up to 50 stations -- mostly outside of the U.S. -- retrofitted with solar panels by the end of this year. Sherwin McDonald, sales manager for BP Solar, says all BP companies are trying to implement solar technologies where applicable. BP's investment in clean solar technologies is in line with its goal of drastically cutting its own hydrocarbon emissions to half of 1995 levels by 2001. To help meet that goal, the company is working with the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund to create a pilot internal emissions-trading system. That system will set a value on emissions and encourage cooperation between different business units to achieve the targets at the lowest practical cost. "By 2020, we believe up to 5% of world energy could be supplied by renewable energies, including solar power," said Browne in a speech delivered last September in Berlin. "Within 50 years, it could be as much as half."

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