Flops obscure solar's growth, Wacker exec says

Flops obscure solar's growth, Wacker exec says

October 22nd, 2011 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Fabian Charrola and Fermin Mezca work on the solar farm at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport on Friday. The project is being orchestrated by Inman Solar in accordance with federal guidelines that all materials be sourced in the United States.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

Dr. Erk Thorsten Heyen of Wacker Polysilicon talks with the the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Friday at UTC. State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, held an energy conference at UTC whichn Heyen attended.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

A top Wacker Polysilicon official said in Chattanooga on Friday that recent high-profile bankruptcies of solar companies are failures of those firms and don't reflect the industry's health.

"The solar market is exploding worldwide," said Erk Thorsten Heyen, vice president of marketing, sales and finance for the company building a $1.5 billion plant in Bradley County.

Heyen, in an interview after a clean energy forum at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the solar market has grown worldwide 30 percent to 50 percent per year over the last five.

"It will certainly continue to be a double-digit growth," he said, adding that 20 percent of the world's electricity could come via solar in 50 years.

Wacker's Charleston, Tenn., plant will make polysilicon for use in the solar industry. By late 2013 when the facility is complete, the plant is slated to employ up to 650 workers.

Heyen, who took part in the forum hosted by state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said the state-of-the-art factory will create another 1,300 spin-off jobs in the region. That's in addition to about 1,000 construction slots, he said.

The Wacker vice president, who holds a doctorate degree in physics, said solar makes sense because the world can't keep using fossil fuels forever. The fuel is limited and there are problems with global warming from burning fossil fuels, he said.

Solar power soon will reach a point that it is competitive with natural gas, Heyen said.

The German company's Charleston plant will sell its polysilicon chunks to companies that make wafers and cells for use in solar units. The plant's product, Heyen said, will go into both small solar units as well as large farms.

Concerning future energy use, Will Sutton, UTC's dean of engineering and computer science, cited the so-called nuclear renaissance. He said while some people say there are problems with nuclear power, any kind of energy will have its problems.

"It's how we manage those issues to do some good," Sutton said.

David Crockett, director of the Chattanooga Office of Sustainability, said he sees significant future power generation at the point of use, such as solar panels on individual rooftops, rather than construction of more huge plants.

"There will always be some need for constant load, but the distributive model ... is resilient, more powerful and more user controlled," he said.

John Noel of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy called for changes at the state level. He said, for example, that Tennessee's energy office should be boosted to commissioner status.