Vancouver, Wash., Solar-Cell Plant Saves Energy to Make Energy
Oct. 18As energy prices rise, demand for alternative power sources rises. But so do the costs of creating some of those alternatives.
Shell Solar Industries' plant north of Vancouver spends more than $1 million a year for electricity. It needs all that energy to melt polysilicon, the raw material for the silicon wafers on which solar cells are built.
In the face of increasing power prices, Shell Solar has worked for years to become more energy-efficient. It pioneered new techniques that cut the cost of making its silicon by a third.
Getting to that point, though, required a leap of faith.
Silicon manufacturers usually guard their trade secrets jealously, wary of giving competitors any advantage. But Shell Solar and the Clark County plant's prior owner, Siemens AG, agreed to work with others in the industry and share their own techniques in a multi-year effort to reduce energy consumption.
The cooperation was a condition of a $1 million grant from the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. That money and a matching investment from the Clark County plant's owners helped find a way to modify the plant's furnaces to use a granular form of polysilicon, which requires less energy to turn into crystals. In a subsequent project, Shell Solar worked with the energy alliance and a key supplier to develop a form of raw polysilicon that requires less energy to produce.
Because Shell Solar agreed to share the results of its research, the projects could have broad implications, said Phil Degens, evaluation project manager with the energy alliance. Silicon for the semiconductor industry is made the same way as in the solar industry, so the energy savings Shell Solar achieved could be widely employed.
"These types of things are very important," Degens said. "They did lead to very effective cost-of-energy reductions."
For Shell Solar, the energy savings helped its Clark County plant stay cost-efficient and keep up with growing demand for solar cells, especially from Germany and Japan.
"I feel a sense of accomplishment when we can get the price of solar down," said Greg Mihalik, who manages Shell Solar's Clark County plant.
© 2004, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.