Glass Industry

Solar Energy Industry Growth Slower than Some Had Expected

In October, Flabeg Solar U.S. Corp., a subsidiary of German glass finishing firm Flabeg GmbH, opened a manufacturing facility in Findlay's Clinton Commerce Park that was expected to create up to 200 jobs building solar mirrors.

The company hoped to supply mirrors for up to 10 projects using sunlight to generate electricity in California, Arizona and Nevada.

But since then, the projects, all on public lands, "have been delayed due to the approval process," said president Jochen Meyer.

As a result, the plant now employs about 50 workers and is just preparing its first order.

"Overall, the market development has been disappointing for the U.S.," Mr. Meyer said.

While the national market for solar power stations has languished, solar power appears to be growing locally, however slowly.

"I think we're seeing a bit of maturation in the industry," said Richard Rothhaar, director of business development at Conservation Consultants Inc. on the South Side.

One business new to Pittsburgh is Standard Solar, a Rockville, Md.-based designer and installer of solar panel systems that took an office in Oxford Centre, Downtown, in May.

Local sales representative Michael Jones said Standard decided to come here because Pittsburgh is "a new market for solar in general."

"Solar really has far and away been more advanced in Eastern Pennsylvania than here," he said, because the price of electricity has been higher there, and because New Jersey took an "aggressive position" on solar.

"The value of their solar renewable energy credits is double [in New Jersey] what they are here," he said.

That spawned the development of solar businesses that eventually expanded into Eastern Pennsylvania to increase their market share.

Now Western Pennsylvania is seeing more engineering firms, electrical contractors and roofers who want to add the installation and maintenance of solar arrays to their skill sets, he said.

For Standard, which was founded in 2004, that spells opportunity to work with them to provide expertise and financing.

"I consider flat rooftops as a blank canvas," he said. "There are so many blank canvases in our region that if all of us were working at this full time, we wouldn't even cross paths."

Electrical contractor Lighthouse Electric in Canonsburg was established in 1984, but it was only last year that it ventured into solar.

Two employees were trained by instructors from Carbondale, Colo., training firm Solar Energy International.

Lou Troiani, a service estimator at Lighthouse, said the company was receiving more requests for bids on solar jobs.

"Seems like everyone's looking for clean energy and sustainable energy sources," he said.

In the places where solar energy has gained the strongest foothold -- think Germany, with nearly 10,000 megawatts of installed solar capacity, compared to 1,650 megawatts in the United States -- the government has played a large part by providing incentives such as tax credits.

Pittsburgh's city government is promoting solar energy by retrofitting some of its own buildings to use it.

In October, the city placed a solar thermal system on a fire station in Brighton Heights.

In May, a photovoltaic array was installed on the city's general services facility on Fifth Avenue, Uptown.

Both installations were done by city workers who had received training from Sandia National Laboratories, a Department of Energy facility in Albuquerque, N.M.

"They're getting pretty good and knowledgeable on solar," said city energy and utilities manager Jim Sloss.

A $47,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development will help to fund the installation of solar energy systems on five more fire stattions, with the next one going up in the fall.

An additional $200,000 from the Department of Energy is being used to develop a website to educate residents about solar power and assist them with solar projects, to provide further training for city employees, and to sponsor a one-day event in November with municipal managers from throughout Allegheny County to help them get started in developing their own programs.

"From the mayor on down, everybody is very supportive of our solar program," Mr. Sloss said. "I think that solar does have a future here in Pittsburgh."

Meanwhile, at Flabeg, Mr. Meyer said he remained confident that the market for large-scale solar projects would get going again.

"We're still positive about market development," he said. "We still believe that we took the right decision to build this plant."

Source: GlassOnWeb