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Solar News

Dow Chemical Wants to Become the 800 Pound Gorilla in the BIPV Market


Here at SolarTown, we are constantly telling our customers that the technology is rapidly changing, and that new technologies incubating now will hit the market in the next few years, changing the entire complexion of solar energy products. We should say right up front that because of incentive programs and falling prices, the time to go solar is now. Waiting for the new solar technology is like waiting for the price of memory on a new computer to fall: they will fall, but in the meantime you will not have a computer. But if you are inclined to wait, here is a new technology that will be available in the US as early as next year. Reuters describes the new product as the latest advance in "Building Integrated Photovoltaic" (BIPV) systems, "in which power-generating systems are built directly into the traditional materials used to construct buildings."

The Daily Tech reports on the breakthrough:

Inventors and designers have long envisioned a roof or window that produced solar power affordably.  However, until now no company had mass produced such a device.  Instead, the consumer market was dominated by rooftop panels which require a fair amount of maintenance, are relatively fragile, and are rather expensive.

That's all about to change, however.  Dow Chemical Co., one of America's most successful chemical firms, is launching the first mass-produced consumer solar shingle next year and will be planning a wide-scale rollout by 2011.  The firm foresees a booming $5B USD market for the shingles.

The new shingles use a thin film of copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) to capture solar energy.  As a result, the cells which are encased in molded plastic are relatively flexible, unlike their photovoltaic cousins.  And while these elements (such as indium) are quite expensive in bulk, they're used extremely sparingly, keeping costs low.

The shingles one weakness is that they manage just over 10 percent efficiencies, less than traditional panels.  Despite this smaller generation capacity, they produce power at a 10 to 15 percent lower cost on a per watt basis due to production and installation cost savings.

With its new entry into the BIPV, Dow will compete not only with traditional PV manufacturers, but also with building material manufacturers. BIPV systems are currently limited mostly to roofing tiles, and have not gained much acceptance because they are less efficient and more expensive. This convergence of technologies poses both risks and opportunities. GreenTech Media aptly points out that:

As an industry giant with hefty resources, Dow will be a formidable competitor in the solar market. The company will not only aim to take business away from manufacturers of conventional solar panels, it also will be jostling with other developers of building materials that also can produce solar energy.

And Dow will not be the only player competing in this market: GreenTech Media continues:

Uni-Solar lined up a prominent player in the roofing material business earlier this year. Denver-based Johns Manville, a Berkshire Hathaway company with 151 years of history, plans to buy Uni-Solar's amorphous-silicon thin films and assemble them into its termaplastic polyolefin (TPO) roofing membranes at its own factory in Alabama.

Dow Chemical's entry into this market is yet another step in the healthy maturation and competition within the solar PV industry. Dow is betting on the convergence of building materials and the solar PV market--many other manufacturers think otherwise.