In the last two years, a lot of dignitaries have taken the tour of the Sharp Manufacturing Co. plant in Hickory Hill to fly the flag of clean energy and solar energy in particular.
U.S. Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu recently visited the Sharp Manufacturing plant in Hickory Hill. (Daily News File Photo/Lance Murphey)
Since 2003, the plant has turned out more than 2 million solar modules. Its work force has grown to 450 workers to meet capacity that has grown eightfold since the solar panels replaced the production of television sets on the assembly line.
U.S. Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu’s visit last week to Sharp was unlike most of the other visits.
It was challenging.
Chu is the co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for physics. Few, if any, of the dignitaries who have taken a tour of the Sharp Manufacturing Memphis plant in recent years have had a better understanding of what they have seen.
At the end of the tour, Memphis Sharp vice president T.C. Jones Jr. said the corporation supports the Obama administration goal of 80 percent use of clean energy in the U.S. by 2035.
“But it’s going to take a considerable amount of support from the federal government to allow us to manufacture in the interim,” Jones added.
Chu talked about the terms of that support as he also questioned whether research and development in a more competitive environment might leave behind one part of the state’s recent goal of creating a solar energy manufacturing industry across the state.
“We call for a ‘sun shot’ to develop photovoltaic technologies that can drive the price down within this decade, not by a factor of two but by a factor of four,” Chu said. “We think that if you can get the price down by a factor of four people will be putting solar panels everywhere without a subsidy.”
But it could mean very different solar technology than that now made at Sharp, which relies on wafer technology but has adapted to past advances in manufacturing.
Chu said the Obama administration is interested in government funding as an incentive to “dramatically alter” photovoltaics.
“There’s a lot of hope to make it so you’re going to be able to have higher efficiency models using less silicon material, less energy input still driving manufacturing costs down,” he said.
The state of Tennessee has bet heavily on the future of polysilicon for semiconductors and photovoltaic applications with the Wacker Chemie plant in Cleveland.
The $1 billion plant and investment in East Tennessee by the Munich, Germany-based company is also part of the plan by former Gov. Phil Bredesen to create a solar manufacturing industry in the state.
The announcement was as big as the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga and the Hemlock semiconductor plant in Clarksville. Together the announcements represented more than $2 billion in capital investment and more than a thousand new jobs announced in 2009.
At the announcement in Cleveland, Bredesen said the plant “enhances Tennessee’s growing reputation as an innovation center in the development and manufacture of clean energy technologies.”
Chu didn’t write off silicon but he also didn’t stake the future of solar development and continued federal funding for research and development on it either.
A funding agency within the Department of Energy is soliciting proposals and making short-term two- to three-year grants for advances in solar manufacturing. The goal is to develop them enough to catch the eye of private financiers.
“Silicon could ultimately still remain the champion if you learn how to produce thinner better films at higher efficiency,” Chu said. “We don’t have to pick winners. We just have to try to figure out how to support the smartest ideas.”
To do that the funding group at DOE includes members of the National Academy of Engineering, leaders like Chu who can follow the science as well as the economics.
“It was said half in jest, but it’s actually true that the people making decisions on the funding are as good or better than the people they are funding,” Chu said.
Currently, the Memphis plant is operating at maximum capacity, annually manufacturing as many as 736,000 panels that can produce 160 megawatts. One megawatt of solar power, which can produce enough energy each year to power 250 average-sized homes, requires 4,600 solar panels. Sharp Memphis has produced enough solar modules to power more than 65,000 average-sized homes with clean, renewable solar energy.