28 March 2012
Roger Little, founder and President of Spire Corporation, has held a bird’s eye view of the solar industry for over 40 years and he continues to exude optimism about the industry he knows so well.
Roger founded Spire in 1969, just five years after earning his Masters in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He holds 70 patents for the technologies behind Spire’s products. His accomplishments outside of Spire are equally inspiring. For thirty years he has participated in triathlons, including fourteen Hawaii Ironman World Championships. And it’s not just entering the events that is impressive, but his training regimen includes running, swimming and biking every day. When we visited Spire’s offices in Bedford, Massachusetts (US), we learned that Roger does more in a day than most of us do in a month, or maybe even a lifetime. He runs 8 miles, and bikes 20 miles early every morning then swims a mile during his lunch hour. While most of us would be worn out and useless, Roger is always engaged in Spire and the industry and making positive contributions. Solar Novus Today (SNT) had the opportunity to speak with Roger about his bird’s eye view.
Analysts are saying we can compete at the grid level in some locations without incentives even now. Being competitive everywhere without incentives is our goal.
SNT: You have seen rapid growth in the photovoltaic market, expansion into new areas, yet solar produces only about 1% of the world’s electricity. How would you characterize the greatest challenge to increased use—technical, economic, political—and how will it be overcome?
RL: My view is that 1% is still a lot of energy even though it is not a lot in comparison to the electrical demands of the world. Also solar’s share will continue to grow reaching as much as 10% in perhaps less than 20 years. The US market itself doubled in 2011 and is projected to grow another 50% this year. I don’t see any major obstacles for this industry. Although government incentives make a difference, on its own, PV is beginning to compete with other forms of electricity generation in many locations.
SNT: Spire’s customers have traditionally been in the crystalline silicon area but you now have a turnkey line for thin film. How do you see these two playing out, especially in light of the drop in prices?
RL: Our experience has been in providing module lines mostly for the crystalline silicon manufacturers. Our lines take solar cells and assemble them into modules by going through steps of cell interconnecting, string layup, laminating, and testing Thin film module manufacturing is really not so different except that you don’t have to interconnect cells—thin film cells are already deposited on a sheet of glass. They still need to be laminated, tested like crystalline modules.
We support both thin film and crystalline manufacturers. Crystalline silicon has the major market share and we don’t see that changing. Crystalline silicon is principally coming out of China, whereas in the US, most of the manufacturing is aimed at thin films. We hope that we can help the thin film guys become successful.
With the drop in module prices driven by Chinese imports, it is difficult to for US manufacturers compete if the whole value chain of manufacturing is done in the US. However US manufacturers can compete if they begin with imported cells or laminates.
SNT: The US trade case against China: What is your opinion? By bringing this case, do you see downsides to the industry as a whole? And while it may force China to make some changes in terms of government support for solar, what effect will it have on US solar manufacturers?
RL: Spire hasn’t signed up on anyone’s lobbying team but my view is at two different levels. In terms of what’s good for the country—a tariff barrier would be a detriment because it would add cost to imported modules, which may slow the use of solar systems in the US. On a Spire level, we are in favour of a tariff because it will bring competitive manufacturing into the US. The Chinese and others will invest in manufacturing in the US. We have a lot of customers in China and India that we are talking to about making the investments to set up in the US. This would be very good for Spire’s equipment business.
Roger Little finishes 2nd winning the silver medal representing the USA at the World’s Long Distance Triathlon Championships in Perth Australia in October 2009
Currently, we don’t sell a lot of equipment to crystalline silicon manufacturers now in the US. The US’s largest manufacturers of crystalline silicon modules, Solarworld, a German company, gets its equipment from Germany and Sharp, a Japanese company, gets theirs from Japan. Most of our business in the US is with the thin film companies and internationally in China and in India.
SNT: You have the advantage of having been in the solar industry for several decades and have watched the ebb and flow of interest in the potential role that solar may play in our energy future. Where do you see the interest level right now? And is it possible that we are just in the training phase for more serious adoption?
RL: I found a letter in my files not long ago that I had sent to General Electric in 1982. I told them that they should be in the photovoltaics business because prices had come down to $8 per watt and the world market was approaching 1 megawatt per year. We certainly have come a long way from that with prices today of $0.88 per watt and a 25 gigawatt world market. Recent events such as Solyndra may have tarnished solar’s image but we should be happy about where we are. The solar industry is not at a hiatus.
SNT: What is your long-term prognosis for the industry? Where are we headed; how will we get there; what has to change to accomplish the industry’s goals?
RL: Solar has come a long way and is becoming more and more accepted throughout the world as a reliable, clean source of electricity. The underlying market continues to grow. It doesn’t need any breakthroughs to reduce costs still further. We have modules out there with 25 year warrantees now and costs are really low.
My long-term prognosis hasn’t changed in 20 years. We believe there’s a need for solar energy. Its acceptance can’t be stopped. There’s no end in sight.
SNT: Should governments continue to support solar with incentives for installations and investments in research?
RL: Incentives have made a difference in the market and we continue to need them. But with modules for 88 cents a watt and the balance of system costs declining, analysts are saying we can compete at the grid level in some locations without incentives even now. Being competitive everywhere without incentives is our goal.
Research for product improvement is always necessary but there are no breakthroughs to be had and we don’t need them. We just need to hold the line and continue to make incremental progress to become a huge industry.
Interviewed by Anne Fischer, Managing Editor, Solar Novus Today