USGNN Original StorySolar's Impact on Glass May Be Minimal Now, But Thomsen Says That's Changing
September 8, 2009

Following Kansas Governor Parkinson's presentation on solar energy during the Glass Association of North America's (GANA) Fall Conference last week (CLICK HERE for related story), Guardian Glass' Scott Thomsen provided a more in-depth look at the solar market's impact on the glass industry. He opened with a question he says he hears often from the solar industry: "Why doesn't the glass industry take solar seriously?" As Thomsen proceeded to explain to his glass industry audience, one reason is that in 2007 less than 0.1 percent of total glass production was for solar glass; forecasts for 2012 predict that global solar glass consumption will grow to a "whopping" 1.1 percent, he added.

However, that's not to say there's no future in solar glass. "One of the challenges is how you decide as companies when to invest," Thomsen said. His presentation provided some cautions in making those decisions.

For example, Thomsen noted that in 2009 solar production actually will retreat due to collapse of Spain's subsidies. He noted that solar demand saw a loss of 2 gigawatts in a few months when Spain capped its subsidies (CLICK HERE for related story) and, as a result, half of the solar pattern lines that existed in Europe have been shut down. In fact, he predicts that this year photovoltaic (PV) cell capacity will outpace demand due to the reduction in Spain's incentives. Other factors, however, are changing that will slowly begin increasing demand for glass for solar applications.

Globally, he noted that in Dubai buildings of a certain height are now required to feature building integrated PV (BIPV). He also noted that more countries, including Italy, Greece and Portugal, are instating feed-in tariffs, although more conservatively than those that collapsed in Spain.

In addition, Thomsen noted that changes in technology likely will increase demand for float glass in these applications. Historically, he explained, 90 percent of PV has been solar pattern glass, as the cost to transition glass type for pattern glass lines is lower than for float lines. In addition, crystalline cells have been the predominant module on the market-and this type of solar cell requires only one lite of glass for protection. Now the market is beginning to see a shift to thin film cells as the more efficient solar technology-a technology that, coincidentally, requires two lites of glass for encapsulation.

Thomsen also points to the growth of concentrating solar power (CSP), adding that the United States has done much more work with CSP than other countries despite obstacles in authorizing new fields for solar mirrors. Thomsen predicts that in the next year the float glass industry will be much more impacted by CSP than PV technologies.

One such obstacles the glass industry will face in all solar energy markets is that "value-added" products haven't had a place in this industry-yet. With architectural glass, Thomsen explained, glass companies sell products based on aesthetics, performance, customer service, etc. The solar industry, however, is "ruled by financial people," Thomsen said, who are interested in the cost of the modules as they strive to meet grid parity. However, Thomsen suggested that several opportunities for adding value to solar glass do exist, including:

  • Meeting demand for higher performing coatings in addition to ultra low-iron glass;
  • A migration to anti-reflective coated low-iron pattern and float glass to increase efficiency for C-Si PV;
  • Higher performing conductive coatings to increase cell efficiency for thin film PV;
  • CSP alternative designs and higher reflectance mirrors to reduce the dollars/watt for small, medium and large installations; and
  • Need for advance surface control coatings to reduce the frequency of required cleaning for solar modules.

Although this market is growing at a rapid pace, it will still be several years before it becomes a sizable segment of the glass industry. After all, as Thomsen quipped, "100 percent of nothing is still nothing." Based on current projections, he predicted that the solar market might see the demand of the residential or commercial glass markets as soon as 2025.

"The key is sustaining growth in a controlled manner," Thomsen said.

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