Sachs and van Mierlo spent a year, in 2007, exploring potential technology ventures that led to 1366 -- named for the average number of watts delivered by the sun on every square meter of the Earth's surface. Foremost in their minds was the potential of solar power to generate electricity without the greenhouse gas emissions that come from fossil fuels. "Right from the start, the goal of the company was 'solar at the cost of coal.' That has always been our tag line."
Building value-added exports
But when van Mierlo lists the potential payoffs from the venture, he doesn't start with the climate case. It's the economy.
The United States is still the most important producer of purified polysilicon used in solar cells and semiconductors, led by manufacturers in Michigan and Washington state, van Mierlo says. In 2009, $1.1 billion of that silicon product was exported to foreign solar module manufacturers, according to a study by GTM Research.
If the 1366 process works, U.S.-produced purified silicon could be turned into wafers, and those could be exported. That would boost the export value to $7 billion annually and generate perhaps 50,000 jobs, van Mierlo said.
"That is essentially what justified spending public money for a project like this. If you add up the number of researchers in this facility and you look at the money that's being spent, it doesn't jibe. If you think that you could create an American industry that is competitive and triple the value of the exports, that becomes interesting.
"The moment that you move to electric cars, then the electricity demand is such that you are creating a huge opportunity for new electricity sources to come online, and this will be the day that solar will prevail."
The fits and starts in energy policy that have marked the solar industry's history are big competitive burdens for U.S. companies facing China and Germany. "I think it will play out like in the next two decades or so. It won't be today or tomorrow," explained van Mierlo. "There will steps forward and steps backward. That's the nature of our democratic system. But I would not dismiss the wisdom of our system, either. Ultimately, the U.S. will take on leadership again in the industry it started, and we will make this happen."
"We need a bit of luck," he said. "But there's certainly been a tremendous amount of progress here, so I'm feeling optimistic. You kind of have to be in my position."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500