Despite a headquarters in the U.S. the vice president of Dow Corning's solar business Eric Peeters believes the company has a truly global perpective on the solar marketplace:
“We are squarely focused on the single biggest challenge to the widespread adoption of solar energy: cost”, Peeters begins. “We believe that Si-based solutions can reduce the cost of ownership of solar modules and therefore help the solar industry quickly penetrate the energy market - with the goal of becoming economically competitive with conventional energy sources. Everything we develop and supply to the PV industry addresses at least one of the following market drivers: total cost/MWp reduction; improved durability; improved performance; or global availability of large supply capabilities”.
According to Peeters, the company is one of the few able to provide advanced silicon-based solutions throughout the entire solar photovoltaic (PV) value chain. This includes cell manufacturing, module assembly, and installation. “From silicon feedstock to high-performance encapsulants, sealants, potting agents and coatings, Dow Corning develops, manufactures and markets a diverse portfolio of silicon-based material solutions,” Peeters explains.
Dow Corning also works through joint ventures - with companies such as Hemlock Semiconductor, where both companies invested nearly US$5 billion in solar materials manufacturing over the past five years - as well as through its own proprietary technology developments.
Other areas of the value chain where Dow Corning has an involvement include the development of conductive materials for interconnections and thermal management; encapsulants; protective potting agents and sealing materials.
Refocus: How does the solar industry create more States like California and New Jersey, with abundant solar take up?
Eric Peeters (EP): It has a lot to do with finding a balance between incentives; between demand-based, supply-based, and innovation-based incentives. The U.S. has basically done a relatively good job with supply-based incentives, with 48C tax credits, for instance. They've also done a job that could be improved on the innovation side. A lot of the stimulus has gone to innovation that is very far away from the market, with not so much focus on the next two to five years. With the demand-based incentives, there could be improvement. California has done a relatively good job there, but in most other States, that is still missing. Whether that's a feed-in tariff, or an RBS standard, or another way of doing it, I think this industry would benefit from an appropriate incentive, put in line with the industry roadmap, which can balance those things out. Also, if you look at the dynamics in Germany, the demand based incentives have helped a lot, but what's also helped is the fact that solar has become visible in the street. People can see their neighbour has it, and they're getting an incentive because they want to be a good citizen, and they see solar is available, and that it works, and that it's not some scary new technology. In this way, the U.S. Government could play a big role in leading by example, by putting solar on military bases or Government buildings or schools so that people start getting familiar with the technology.
Refocus: Right, the current controversy with China vs. the U.S. on the panel ‘dumping’ saga. What is Dow's position?
EP: Dow Corning, being a global multi-national, is for free and open trade. It's very important that if there is a trade issue there are organisations to deal with it, like the WTO, and it will probably do a good job. I think the aim of this industry is very simple: to reduce the cost per kilowatt hour over time as fast as the industry can, and the industry has been very successful in doing that over the last few years.[…] The industry has become much more competitive because costs are coming down, so we are expecting that there is going to be some form of market consolidation because of increased competitiveness and skill coming into the industry, with some very large players competing with some smaller players, and this will happen naturally whether there is dumping going on or not; and I think you've seen a lot of that playing out right now. But the ultimate goal [of the industry]…is to make solar as competitive as we can versus all the other alternatives that are out there.
Refocus: How does Dow Corning work with R&D communities and academia in order to speed up the pace of innovation?
EP: The challenge of reducing cost procurement for the overall system is complex, because it is a complex system. We need collaboration with customers, with our suppliers, and we definitely need collaboration with the academic world as well, whether that's directly with Universities or Research Institutes. At Dow we have a combination of both. I like what Professor Green is saying about activities around pilot plants, and really implementing technology in the industry, because that has sometimes been missing, especially historically. Academia tends to focus on things that are quite far out whereas the industry tends to focus on the next quarter or the next Government. That gap in between - the two to five year period of actually bringing a new idea into the market, and making it work - I think that is where the area of collaboration could be, that everybody would benefit a lot from.
Refocus: if you could wave a magic wand and implement something that would result in really driving the PV industry forward, what would that thing be?
EP: For this industry to be successful, it has to become a mainstream player in the role of energy…I think the piece that is…missing to achieve that….is not the actual performance of the industry, but the availability of widely-accepted clear neutral data that everybody agrees on. Look at that data, and it is actually very clear that solar is an alternative.