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Solar Material

Silicon Chemistry Shining Light on Achieving Grid Parity

As increased investments worldwide improve cost, durability and performance of solar modules, the potential for grid parity may be only a few years away.
But to ensure that photovoltaics will be successful and sustainable, the industry will need to continue to focus on multiple, interwoven tracks: a stable feedstock; a combination of continuous improvement and innovation in materials, technologies and equipment; collaboration, including public-private partnerships; and stable, transparent and easy- to-implement government policies.

By Eric Peeters



As one of the few companies in the world able to provide silicon-based solutions throughout the entire PV value chain, Dow Corning continues to expand its portfolio of total solution packages including high-performance cell encapsulation, cell coatings, frame sealing, junction box bonding and potting agents, as well as next generation solar grade silicon. Dow Corning’s long-term commitment to sustainability and expertise in silicon-based materials is driving significant investments in these areas.


Stable Availability of Feedstock


First and foremost, to achieve grid parity, the solar industry must drive down the cost per kilowatt hour of energy produced over the lifetime of a solar panel. Materials are an enormous part of the equation on two fronts: the cost of producing a module and the module’s lifetime performance. In terms of production, raw materials constitute approximately 70% of a module’s total costs. The industry is working on solutions that allow manufacturers to use better raw materials that increase the efficiency of production and increase the efficiency, durability and long-term performance of the modules. These factors add up to reducing the cost per kilowatt hour and total cost of ownership or solar modules.

Dow Corning, and its joint ventures, the Hemlock Semiconductor Group, have invested nearly US$5 billion in solar materials, manufacturing capacity and technology development in the last five years. Of that, Hemlock Semiconductor is in the process of adding up to 46,000 metric tons of polysilicon capacity in an overall investment of up to US$4 billion. Additionally, Dow Corning is constructing a plant that will manufacture monosilane gas--a key material used to manufacture thin-film solar cells.


Role of Silicones in Enhancing the Durability and Efficiency of Solar Modules


Why the investment in silicon-based materials’s Consider these characteristics: Compared to the incumbent materials used for PV modules, silicones are inherently UV stable, leading to enhanced durability under extreme weather conditions. Silicon-based materials used as encapsulants for solar cells can also eliminate UV blockers, which are present in some of the incumbent encapsulation technologies. This leads to silicone materials being much more transparent to all wavelengths of light in the solar spectrum. Silicones actually allow more light to hit the cells within the module, increasing the efficiency. In addition, silicones can be formulated to have low modulus and be stress relieving while also having excellent adhesion to the glass and cell substrates. They also can be constructed into hard/resinous coatings that provide effective durable protection and abrasion resistance while maintaining optical clarity.

Silicones can also be employed as a module frame sealant and adhesive. Silicone adhesives can outperform typical PV tapes in frame sealing applications because they offer: ease of use increasing productivity, complete protection against moisture and debris, long-term durability with enhanced environmental protection and durability--in lab tests, typical PV tapes degrade with 100% adhesive failure when exposed to UV and moisture. In addition, silicone has significantly better adhesion to glass and metal frames.


Research and Development


Especially important in a solar panel is not just how much energy is generated in the first minute of its life, it’s the 25 or 30 years that follow. By improving durability and performance of panels, the PV industry can reduce cost of ownership

To meet these needs, Dow Corning has established three Solar Solutions Application Centers, two in the United States and one in Korea; and is planning two more, one in Belgium and one in China where the company collaborates with customers to develop, evaluate and pilot material solutions used to manufacture solar panels.

By consolidating scientists, engineers and marketing professionals in central locations, Dow Corning’s Solar Solutions Application Centers provide facilities and equipment where Dow Corning can work closely with leading solar cell and module manufacturers to develop and test new technologies. The ultimate goal of this model is to shorten the innovation cycle, thereby turning market opportunities and new ideas into profitable solutions more quickly.

One example of successful collaboration is the breakthrough solar cell encapsulation technology that Dow Corning commercialized in 2009 that improves performance and effectively lowers the total cost of ownership of solar power. Dow Corning PV-6100 Cell Encapsulant Series relies on the UV stability of the silicone molecule to deliver improved durability and increased efficiency for crystalline modules compared to incumbent organics.


Impacting Renewable Energy Policy


Dow Corning actively advocates for policies that encourage the rapid growth of a viable renewable energy industry, increase investments in research and development to support innovation in solar energy technologies and fund renewable energy-related education, training and job creation.

For example, Dow Corning Chairman and CEO, Stephanie Burns has met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House twice to discuss renewable energy and the jobs it would create. She also delivered the keynote speech at an energy summit sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Dr. Burns and other experts discussed the political and economic barriers and opportunities for utility-scale solar energy.

Dow Corning has also convened meetings with solar and energy efficiency leaders in Washington, D.C. to advocate for new federal policies that encourage the growth of the domestic solar energy and energy efficiency industries, and promote the benefits of pending energy legislation.

In Europe, Dow Corning worked with Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based, not-for-profit think tank for European Union policy analysis and debate, to organize a panel discussion with policy-makers, members of the European Parliament and industry and third-party organizations in Brussels. Together, they discussed European countries’ National Renewable Energy Action Plans.

 Throughout the world, Dow Corning sees four key areas through which governments can play an active role:

1. Establish broad legislative and regulatory packages designed to encourage the rapid growth of a viable renewable energy industry and encourage consumer adoption.

These could include manufacturing tax credits, rebates for consumers on panel installations, renewable energy standards, and interconnection and net metering standards.

2. Increase investments in research and development to support innovation in solar energy technologies.

This should include encouragement for expansion of public-private partnerships to further develop the renewable energy industry.

3. Further invest in renewable energy-related education, training and job creation.

Long-term success of an economically vibrant renewable energy sector will require skilled workers in all areas, from engineers and lab technicians to installers and repairmen.

4. Governments will ‘lead by example’ in the implementation of clean technologies.

From procurement of onsite generation, including solar energy systems, to retrofitting buildings for improved energy efficiency, to establishing new building standards and power purchase agreements, governments can lead the way to a new future for energy, focused on clean, sustainable technologies.


Optimism for the Future


Dow Corning’s leaders are confident that the solar industry will reach grid parity in coming years and are excited about developing new solar solutions and options with customers, associations and energy stakeholders to help the industry create a viable, sustainable future.

Dow Corning is working to create a better future for children and our children’s children, which is one of the most important things anyone can work on. This is a collective duty to future generations, providing them with ample renewable means of generating power while preserving their environment.


Eric Peeters is vice president of Dow Corning’s solar business (www.docorning.com). Based at the company’s European headquarters, he is responsible for the overall strategic direction and operations of the solar business around the world. Peeters joined Dow Corning in 1992, working as a chemical engineer at the company’s manufacturing site in UK. He was named executive director for the solar business in early 2008 and vice president in 2009. Peeters has a Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and a Master’s in Technology Enterprise from the IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland.



For more information, please send your e-mails to pved@infothe.com.

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