SUNPATH Program to Open up Business Opportunity for Glass Industry
August 24, 2011

By Sahely Mukerji

On August 2, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced a $50 million investment over two years for the SUNPATH program, aimed to help the U.S. reclaim its competitive edge in solar manufacturing. Scaling Up Nascent PV At Home, or SUNPATH, represents the second solar Photovoltaic Manufacturing Initiative (PVMI) supporting the Department of Energy's (DOE) SunShot Initiative.

The program will bring huge business opportunities to the glass and glazing industry, to meet increasing demands, as PV manufacturing takes off, says K.V. Ravi, chief technology officer at Crystal Solar Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. "The major segment is PV with solar thermal and concentrating PV also becoming larger markets," he says. "Since solar modules are manufactured using glass as the superstrate, glass is a critical component of such systems, both from the point of view of protecting the solar cells from the environment for over 30 years and low cost packaging. With the scaling of PV manufacture, lower cost glass is a critical requirement for the future."

Steve Connen, BIPV consultant in Grass Valley, Calif., agrees. "The SUNPATH initiative provides an opportunity for the glazing industry to begin the manufacturing of custom PV laminates to service the reclad and new construction glass markets," he says. "There is an opening for U.S. lamination companies to provide BIPV glazing components with the financial help of the federal government in order to promote manufacturing PV at home. I encourage companies with autoclave laminating experience to consider this funding source to help reduce the costs of PV manufacturing for the American BIPV market."

This is the first time that the government has extended such assistance to the industry. "The DOE has to date had no involvement in enabling commercialization of new PV technologies, other than loan guarantee programs," Ravi says. "The SunShot and SUNPATH programs are attempts to redress this so we can compete on an equal footing with China and Germany with a very effective feed-in program."

The U.S. lost its foothold in the global PV market drastically over the last few years. As recently as 1995, the U.S. maintained a dominant global solar market share, manufacturing 43 percent of the world's PV panels, according to information from the DOE. However, in steady decline, the U.S. market share shrank to 27 percent by 2000, and to 7 percent by 2010.

"The public/private mix is at the heart of national debate these days, so, it's certainly timely that getting the balance right in industrial policy initiatives is a critical question," says Michael Magdich, general manager of Global CSP & CPV at the Guardian Solar Energy segment of Guardian Industries in Auburn Hills, Mich. "On the one hand, governments in Europe and Asia have taken aggressive approaches to building highly visible solar industries - think Spain, Germany and China - in this regard. U.S. policy makers, of course, have always taken a more measured approach. But the type of support embedded within the SunShot/SUNPATH initiative is important, because it can serve as a bridge to help make solar energy applications competitive without future subsidies."

U.S. policy makers need to continue to explore ways to ensure that U.S. manufacturers can grow and compete in global markets, Magdich says.

"Let's face it," Magdich says. "A stronger, competitive, on-the-move domestic solar segment means greater business opportunities for the glass industry - manufacturers, fabricators and consumers alike. We welcome creative, thoughtful and proactive government initiatives that build a bridge to strengthening the U.S. solar industry."

The DOE is seeking applicants with industrial-scale demonstrations of PV modules, cells, or substrates that offer lower-cost solutions in line with the SunShot goal. Applications are due by October 28, 2011. More information and application requirements can be found at the Funding Opportunity Exchange (FOA number DE-FOA-0000566).

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