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India has a huge solar potential: Eric Peeters, vice president, Dow Corning Solar Solutions

According to reports, In a two part interview, Eric Peeters , vice president, Dow Corning Solar Solutions & Wind Energy Solutions, talks to Irum Khan about Solar Energy Exploration and Development (SEED) research being carried out in Belgium and how it can benefit India. Excerpts:

Which are the activities currently being carried out at SEED?

SEED expands the company’s research & development capabilities along the photovoltaic value chain as well as the next-generation of silicon-based technologies and applications used to improve energy efficiency. The research centre was built with the latest technologies in terms of energy efficiency, so it acts as a demonstration of what can be achieved in sustainable innovation using silicon-based materials in high performance building. SEED is dedicated to innovation and it facilitates our collaboration with customers and research institutes to accelerate product development.

A lot of our work is currently in the area of clean energy generation and energy efficiency. One of the SEED buildings also houses a Synthesis Technology Centre where we research on next-generation silicon-based technologies and applications to improve energy efficiency in construction, automotive and electronics.

What are the initiatives?

The SEED research centre enhances Dow Corning’s R&D competencies along the photovoltaic (PV) value chain and completes the company’s network of solar research centres based in Europe, the US and Korea. Our research continues to focus on reducing the cost of solar energy to make PV even more competitive with traditional energy sources. For example, the Solar Application Cent? re in the SEED provides in-house capabilities to complete the full process of fabricating a PV cell – from full-size wafers to finished cells – and to measure technical performance on all aspects. Our teams work in collaboration with customers and independent research centres on standard solar cells, but also on next-generation cells using innovative techniques and technologies to anticipate the future needs of the solar industry.

We also have special labs where we develop new silicon-based materials for the assembly and installation of solar panels to improve their performance, durability and efficiency, while reducing overall cost per kilowatt hour. This is one of the areas where the solar industry has the biggest opportunity to reduce the total cost of ownership of a particular module.

In the Synthesis Technology Centre Dow Corning is actively exploring smart window technology, which aims to increase the energy efficiency of office buildings, as well as lithium ion-battery technology that could help increase the autonomy of electric vehicles and silicon-based materials that would enhance the efficiency and usability of LED luminaires.

Has solar research been well explored and exploited in India? Which country is the most developed in this area? Why?

In 2011 the solar market was essentially concentrated in Europe, with Germany and Italy being the largest countries. This is starting to change. Five years from now, Europe will be a small part of this market because the reality is that the largest solar potential in the world is in the so-called sunbelt countries, with more than 1,300-1,400 hours of sunshine per year. Very often these countries outside the OECD have booming economies that are growing fast and need energy generation assets but have not yet build grid capabilities, so they can adapt the grid to the introduction of renewables.

These countries are China, India, Turkey, the Middle East, South Africa, also North Africa, maybe Chile, Mexico and the South West in the US, these are the areas with future market potential, and clearly one exception among the mature countries is Japan which is struggling to get its power generation back up to par with where it was before the Fukushima disaster.

Is this centre funded or supported by the government? What’s the deal like?

The SEED research centre represents a EUR 9 million investment for two new buildings and state-of-the-art equipment to support research, development and production of silicon-based materials, and it was part of a total investment of approximately EUR 36 million announced by Dow Corning Corporation in 2010 for its European headquarter and manufacturing site in Seneffe. The Walloon region (commonly called Wallonia, is one of the three federal regions of Belgium) supported this investment by Dow Corning to enable research and development on solar cells.

How would the research benefit the masses/industry?

The extent of our research and the benefits of our materials, reach along the entire solar value chain. For instance, we started a production facility for monosilane, a key PV material for amorphous silicon thin film technology but which is also used as raw material for anti-reflective coatings for crystalline PV cells.

Dow Corning has an active research portfolio in the area of how solar cells are made. Our state-of-the-art cell laboratory in the SEED provides in-house capabilities to make different types of high efficiency cells, test our materials and validate whether we can bring enough value for our customers to bring the technology to the market.

At the module assembly level, our biggest investment in research is in encapsulation to help get the cost of energy down. Silicone encapsulants improve the efficiency, stability and durability of the PV module and, in addition, allow for a more streamlined production process. We firmly believe that silicone encapsulation is a key component to realize the PV industry roadmap to lower the cost per kw/h, especially with high efficiency cells we see a lot of synergy and potential.

Finally, at installation level we think that the high-tech bonding materials for which we have been an innovation leader in the construction industry are perfectly applicable to the solar space. Our solar bonding technology is actually starting to appear on the market for the bonding of glass-glass modules in the field.

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