Solar panels find place in limelight

Power: The California energy crisis has helped a Frederick plant that makes silicon wafers.

March 08, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - On the pie chart of electrical production, solar power isn't even a sliver.

"It's more like a line," said Harry B. Shimp, chief executive officer of BP Solar, which has a plant off Interstate 70 in Frederick.

But the power crisis in California has increased interest in the silicon wafers that convert sunlight to electricity as a supplement to conventional power plant production.

"It's gotten us to the table," Shimp said. "Before, when state governments talked about energy policy, they talked to gas and oil companies, coal companies, but not us. Now, they're talking to us."

Shimp and executives from three other solar companies discussed long-term energy policy with California Gov. Gray Davis last month.

Shortly after that, Davis announced a package of tax breaks, state rebates and a commercial loan guarantee program to encourage the development of alternative energy sources, particularly wind and solar power.

Although Maryland officials have not addressed solar power issues specifically, they are "talking about all kinds of green power, green buildings," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Maryland has a "net metering" law that allows home owners to sell excess power generated by their solar panels at mid-day, when demand at home is low, but high at offices, stores and factories, back to their utility companies.

"It's running your electric meter backwards," Shimp said.

The solar energy business grew by an average of 25 percent a year over the past four years, and by 38 percent last year, with a good deal of the growth on the West Coast.

"In California, they're looking for a near-term solution," said Steve Hester, technical director of the Solar Power Association, a Washington-based trade group. "They want energy any way they can get it, and solar power has a short lead time. You can get it up fast, and you don't need a lot of permits."

Siemens Solar Industries announced last month a new solar panel manufacturing plant in Los Angeles. At the same time, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced that the company, a subsidiary of German industrial giant Siemens AG, had qualified for a financial incentive program that allows homeowners to recoup slightly more than half the cost of installing solar panels.

The incentives, combined with the power crisis, have increased interest by a factor of six, said Raju Yenamandra, director of sales and marketing for Siemens Solar, based in Southern California.

"We were averaging 20 calls a day before; now we're getting about six times that many. And when something hits the news, it could go up 10 times as much," he said. "How much of that turns into business is going to be interesting to see."

The Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Ore., recently launched a $200 million program of incentives to encourage the use of solar and other renewable energy sources.

BP Solar is in the midst of a $28 million expansion here, the fourth since the plant opened in 1981.

The plant produced enough panels last year to generate 40 megawatts of electricity and expects to reach 50 megawatts this year, said Joseph L. Hudgins, a company vice president.

"We need to be over 200 [megawatts] by 2004, and that will take a plant that costs $75 million somewhere in the world," he said.

The company has plants in Virginia, Australia, India and Spain, but this is the largest, supplying the others with the brittle silicon wafers at the heart of the solar panels as well as turning out panels.

Company officials said they hope to announce plans for a sixth plant by late summer, but would not say where they might build it.

The silicon arrives as rocks about the size of one you might skip across a pond. The rocks go into ceramic crucibles where they are melted at a temperature of 1,450 degrees centigrade, then poured into other ceramic containers about 10 inches square to cool.

The process requires high-grade ceramic, so the company makes its own from broken glass test tubes and light bulbs ground to a fine powder, mixed with water and fired in a kiln. "If we heated it any more, we'd be making fine porcelain," said Jean Bospic, director of technical services here.

The bricks go into machines that slice them into thin wafers, and the wafers are treated with chemicals so they create electricity in the sunlight.

Workers lay 36 wafers in series, connect them with thin copper wire, negative to positive, add electrical contacts to hook them into home systems, set them in a frame and cover the frame with glass to protect it.

Solar advocates say it's a "truly green technology" because it has no moving parts, is portable and uses no fossil fuels. Solar panels can create electricity in places that power lines can't reach, from the middle of the ocean to the highest mountains of the Andes.

Better still, it reaches the peak of its ability to generate electricity at the same time demand peaks - in mid-day, when factories are humming, stores are open and air conditioners are running.

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