The Photovoltaic Sell | Feature | Chicago Reader

The Photovoltaic Sell 

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"It's a big event anytime the sun comes out, so we bring everything up," says Paul Collard dryly, tipping his head toward makeshift wooden tables covered with wires, monitors, and a nine-inch-square plastic lens mounted on a stand. "By the time we get it all set up, the sun's gone." But not today. A faint acrid smell wafts across the roof, and Collard springs to tip the lens so the intense point of light it's creating hits metal instead of a smoking spot of plywood.

Sixteen of these flat lenses, concentric rings of tiny prisms manufactured by 3M, cover each of the four photovoltaic modules fastened to a heavy steel tracking stand in the middle of the roof of the South Shore Enterprise Building on East 75th Street. Collard, an electrical engineer, has put four years into developing the modules, which also incorporate Roland Winston and Joe O'Gallagher's CPC research. But the photovoltaic market, though it's much stronger than the thermal, is still small, and it's basically an overseas market, difficult for a small manufacturer to crack.

Collard, a quiet but intense man who talks about his work in lucid paragraphs, came to the U.S. from Britain 20 years ago. He taught high school physics for a while, then got into computer programming. Fourteen years ago, with only $500 in capital, he helped start U.S. Robotics, a successful computer-modem company. But he had long wanted to work in solar, and he was particularly intrigued by the concentrating technology O'Gallagher described during a Compton lecture he gave at the University of Chicago in the late 70s.

Four years ago Collard left U.S. Robotics with enough capital to support his new company, Midway Labs, for what he knew could be a long time. "The solar market, unlike the electronics market, is not really the sort of market where you can bootstrap your way up."

He set up the business with the help of his wife--Rebecca Janowitz, a lawyer who's now the company's president--in a business-incubator building run by the Neighborhood Institute, partly because he wanted to be able to provide a few jobs on the south side. "We have a commitment to this area. Robotics as a group migrated out of the city, but we're going to try to make every effort we can to stay." He now employs three people full-time: Bob Hoffmann, a design engineer, and Michael Anderson and Slater Lewis, skilled assemblers. Collard also knew the building was eligible to be a state demonstration site and hoped to set up an array of modules that would tie into the Com Ed grid, but Illinois' financial crisis ended that plan.

Midway Labs is in the back of the cinder-block building, in a room cluttered with boxes, tools, and competitors' panels. The six-foot modules are assembled by hand, beginning with an aluminum sheet-metal trough that looks like an elongated 13-inch-deep bread pan. Sixteen small silicon solar cells, a little bigger than pennies, are set in the bottom and wired together in series. Fixed above them are three-inch-tall cones of glass that use Winston's concentrating technology in reverse--the intense points of light from the flat 3M lenses that cover the module can fall anywhere on the broad convex tops of the cones and the light will be spread evenly over the surface of the solar cell below. The light hitting the cell is concentrated about 170 times.

Photovoltaic concentrating collectors must track the sun, and trackers are notorious for failing. But Collard has great faith in the one he sells, a brand-new design by Wattsun, another small entrepreneurial company. Because the point of light from the 3M lens doesn't have to be focused precisely on the solar cell, Collard's modules don't have to follow the sun as closely as other concentrators, and the modules in an array don't have to be aligned perfectly. That makes them cheaper to produce and easier for the buyer to assemble.

Because the modules track they can operate at about 9 percent efficiency all day long; standard flat-panel collectors operate at about 12 to 15 percent at their peak, around noon, and a bit less before and after. "Our goal is to trade off a little efficiency to try to reduce cost significantly," says Collard. Nevertheless he hopes to double that efficiency in about six months, when the company that makes the cells he now uses, Astropower, starts producing a new design with the contacts embedded in the silicon instead of on the surface. Illinois, which earlier gave Midway Labs a small grant to develop a prototype, has given it a Technology Challenge grant to help design the new cell (these grants nearly always go to big ventures).

Solar cells are by far the most expensive part of any collector. Collard's entire module uses only a couple square inches of the silicon wafers; flat panels are essentially one big wafer. "And to assemble flat panels you need more complex equipment--you need laminating machinery. Whereas here, with an oven and some bricks you're in business. Or some weights, I should say. We use bricks."

Each module produces 65 watts on a sunny day, or 0.23 kilowatt-hours on an average day in Chicago. (The city gets full sun only three and a half hours a day on a yearly average--the best spots in the world get only five to six, and a few odd ones get seven.) The typical American household uses 24 kilowatt-hours a day, so it would take a very large array of modules to supply a home here with all of its power, as well as a large storage system, which would still consist of cumbersome lead-acid batteries. And the modules aren't cheap; a four-module array and tracker costs $2,175, though the price per module drops as you buy more. Collard calculates that the cost of power using his modules--20 cents per kilowatt-hour, assuming the modules and tracker work fine for 30 years--would still be double what Com Ed now charges. Still, ten years ago the cost of photovoltaic power was $1.50 per kilowatt-hour.

Like O'Gallagher, Collard hopes that someday the real costs of electrical grid power will be included in the rates consumers pay so that photovoltaics can compete, and that someday people will start buying photovoltaics for environmental reasons. One-third of this country's energy goes toward producing electricity, but so far Americans have been reluctant to buy photovoltaics as a major power source. Collard, who's been to trade shows where lots of people ask questions but don't write checks, says he understands. "Concentrators are something different, and tracking systems are not that familiar. So people are nervous. What we hope to do is get the price down to the point where it would be so competitive that more people would take the plunge. We haven't been able to do that--we've just been able to get moderately competitive with flat panels. Which is a pretty good achievement--even with our limited resources and small amount of factory capabilities, we can still give the flat-panel manufacturers a run for their money." It's the basic solar catch-22--Collard can't get the price down without mass production, and he can't mass-produce without a market.

In this country photovoltaics for an entire house are competitive only in areas at least a mile past the grid system, where the cost of putting in poles and lines is more than the cost of going solar. Allan Frank, publisher of the Solar Letter, says there may be as many as 50,000 homes that now depend solely on photovoltaics. Slowly this market seems to be finding Midway Labs, which only three months ago started advertising in Home Power, an alternative-energy magazine. A couple of people in Texas and Hawaii have bought modules and hope to start acting as dealers, and several distributors of other energy products seem interested in expanding into solar by selling the modules. Yet most of the U.S. market still consists of small systems--calculators, patio and billboard lights, electric fences, irrigation pumps, heaters for swimming pools and livestock watering troughs. Nearly all inland-waterway navigational aids--buoys, foghorns--are now photovoltaic.

Some U.S. utilities, notably Pacific Gas & Electric, are now buying and testing numerous household-size arrays. "They've recognized that it isn't necessarily these enormous, centralized, grid-connected, multimegawatt solar arrays that are needed," says Collard. "They're paying a lot of attention now to more distributed uses. If they've got areas where the network is somewhat overloaded, instead of investing in additional grid equipment they can put in solar to help offset that. They can also put in solar to reduce their peak demand so their equipment will last longer." Asked if Com Ed has shown any interest, he pauses for a long moment, then says, "No comment?" He pauses again and smiles. "I've run into prosolar people at Commonwealth Edison. Don't identify any of them or they'll be shot at dawn."

The biggest market for photovoltaics, and the biggest potential market, is overseas. The U.S., which had sales of $81 million in 1990, now exports 70 to 80 percent of its production, and worldwide production is growing at about 20 to 25 percent a year. Three-quarters of the world's people are not connected to a grid system but desperately want electricity for lights, radios, refrigeration, irrigation, and grain drying and milling--and they're not asking for anywhere near the kilowatt-hours Americans use. Mexico is now putting a lot of money into rural electrification, and India recently started a big photovoltaics program that's strongly supported by its prime minister.

American manufacturers now have 30 percent of world sales, though in 1980 they had 80 percent of the world's tiny but metamorphosing market. But that lead was undercut when the Reagan administration slashed R & D programs, including those that would have commercialized systems and promoted exports. The peak funding year for photovoltaics was 1981, when it received $150 million; the '92 budget is $51 million. By 1987 the U.S. held only 35 percent of the world's market, and the Japanese had 40. The next year both Japan and Germany spent more than the U.S. on R & D.

It didn't help that most of the oil companies, which had preferred investing in photovoltaics over thermal, got out in the early 80s. In 1986 Sohio pulled out of a joint venture with Energy Conversion Devices. A few years later, when ECD needed money to increase production capacity, no American company was interested, so ECD set up a 50-50 partnership with Canon, a Japanese firm. In 1989 Atlantic Richfield sold ARCO Solar, which had accounted for half of U.S. photovoltaics production and 15 percent of the world's, to Siemens, a German corporation; again, no American company was interested. The only big U.S. producer left is Amoco's Solarex, and last year there were rumors that the Chicago-based owner would have been happy to sell if someone had offered enough money. However, a few companies with smaller research programs, including Texas Instruments, have been working on breakthrough technologies that could shift the balance back toward the U.S.

Collard has sold 10 of his modules to Mexico for an irrigation project, and 8 to a solar research program at the University of Madrid in Spain (the U. of C. also bought 12 for its roof collection). He's sold 8 modules to Bangladesh for pumping water, and has just had a report that they came through the monsoon season unharmed.

Rebecca Janowitz says she has found people overseas to be much more interested in solar than Americans, and Midway Labs has received letters asking for information from all over the world. The company recently sent bids on small projects to India, Ecuador, Chile, Costa Rica, and Mozambique, and will soon bid on a large project in Zaire. The Mexican government will test some modules this summer to see if they'll fit into its rural-electrification program. Lots of foreigners have also toured the little factory. Janowitz, laughing, says French officials told them everything was beautiful, Chinese officials said that they could make it themselves, and Japanese corporate representatives offered to buy the whole company. "American government officials never come," she says.

But Midway Labs hasn't sold much yet--the number marked in red felt-tip pen on the base of a partially assembled module on the workbench is only 57. And the company hasn't made anything close to a profit. Collard says, "I thought, hey, four years. No problem." How long can he hold on? He pauses, then laughs. "Oh, I don't know. What's one of those vague sorts of phrases they use? Let's say it's going to be hard to justify continuing the company if it doesn't increase sales in the near term."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.

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