Solarex Still Waiting For Sunny Skies

September 26, 1990|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Correspondent

FREDERICK -- Ever since Iraq pushed the world toward the brink of a war over oil, the phones here at the largest U.S.-owned solar-cell factory have been going crazy.

But not with orders for the panels that produce an electric charge when exposed to sunlight.

Solarex managers here say they are constantly explaining to customers, friends, suppliers and even strangers that no, they haven't had a single extra order for the company's photovoltaic panels as a result of the most recent oil crisis, and yes, they are still losing money.

"It is not like gas masks," explained President John Corsi. "We don't suddenly get an order because Iraq invaded Kuwait. We can't offer instant solutions for the Mideast."

Instead of leaping to offer its domestically produced replacement power for suddenly controversial oil-based energy, Rockville-based Solarex, which is owned by Amoco Oil Co. and has a factory in Frederick, has avoided the limelight.

Wiser now that they have survived the boom and bust in the alternative-energy industry that followed the oil crises of the 1970s, and constrained by their oil-company bosses, Solarex executives are keeping their eyes on the road they hope will lead them back to profitability and respectability.

Solarex's "health is at a critical point right now," said Edgar DeMeo, manager of the solar-power program for the Electric Power Research Institute in California.

"The technology is just getting to point where it can be used reliably for niche markets," he said, and the owners are probably getting tired of losing money on the company.

"They've got maybe two or three years to be profitable," Mr. DeMeo said.

The 15-year-old company boomed during the late 1970s, when oil was expensive and homeowners looked to the sun for cheap hot water, air conditioning and night lights.

But, like the rest of the solar industry, Solarex was hit by the cheap oil of the 1980s and the federal government's drastic cutbacks in research grants and tax benefits.

The company started losing money in 1979 and probably would have gone out of business if it hadn't been purchased by Amoco in 1983, industry experts say.

But the financial support of Amoco wasn't enough to protect Solarex from severe cuts. The staff, which numbered 700 in the early 1980s, is down to about 400.

And Solarex has limited itself to a niche far from the mainstream of U.S. consumers: those who need power in odd or distant places, such as boaters, Scandinavian vacationers, oil drillers, Nigerian villagers and Australian telephone companies.

"We don't advertise to the general public," spokesman Christopher Pope said. Besides, he said, Solarex wants to advertise only "what we can actually provide."

And the company has realized it can't provide abundant, cheap energy to most Americans -- not yet, anyway.

Solarex's three plants in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Australia combined have only enough capacity to turn out 10 megawatts of power a year -- barely enough power for a town of 2,500 people. So it couldn't produce enough panels to meet mass market demand now.

And, though the price of oil has shot up by more than 25 percent in the last two months, energy generated by fossil fuels is still only half as expensive as power generated by Solarex's panels.

Once installed, solar panels provide energy almost for free. But they cost about $4.30 per watt provided. That means buying enough panels to serve a typical house would cost about $18,000, and installing them would probably cost another $18,000, Mr. Pope said.

After averaging out all of the capital and installation costs, Solarex's panels produce energy at a cost of about 50 cents a kilowatt hour, he said. A kilowatt hour is enough energy to run 10 100-watt light bulbs for an hour.

That's no bargain when compared with Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.'s usual hourly residential rate of 7.3 cents an hour, or even the approximately 28 cents an hour some troubled utilities charge.

As much as he would like to sell more solar panels, Bruce `D Wilson, director of distribution for Atlantic Solar Products in Baltimore, one of Solarex's biggest distributors, tells potential customers, "It is just not economically feasible to disconnect from the utility."

Solarex managers say that photovoltaic solar power is prohibitively expensive because the panels are too expensive to make and too weak electrically.

For example, some of the approximately 180 workers at the

Frederick plant use saws to slice bricks of al

most pure silicon into wafers for the panels, but the saws turn half of each brick into waste dust.

Once each silicon wafer is chemically treated, it must be hand-wired with silver to other wafers to make an electrical circuit before the wafers are laminated under glass or plastic for protection from the elements.

So Solarex is experimenting with new, more efficient ways of cutting the bricks, as well as robots to assemble the panels.

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