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Volts from sunbeams: US industry may lag in shadow of Japan

Two years ago Paul Maycock, a consultant who was then head of the US Department of Energy's photovoltaic division, said photovoltaics would be installed on the rooftops of private residences in the United States and be fully economic by 1986. Today, he says that goal will not be met . . . at least by this country.

Over the past three years, the US research-and-development budget for photovoltaics, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, has dropped dramatically, from a high of $150 million at the end of the Carter administration to $78 million in fiscal year '81, with $54 million predicted for fiscal '83. Although the US industry still holds the technical lead in the field , the Japanese - outspending the US four to six times - have undertaken a major effort to capture the consumer market in photovoltaics, or PVs.

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In recent months, for example, the Sanyo Corporation has opened a four-story manufacturing plant in Japan to produce PV chips powering such consumer items as radios, TVs, calculators, and batteries. It expects production to rise from 1.5 million pieces per month this year to 4 million two years from now. At that time , it plans to open the marketplace to rooftop home electric power systems. Such systems would absorb enough sunlight to power home appliances and electric lights.

The US photovoltaic industry, meanwhile, has been concentrating on developing the market as it exists today, which means selling PVs for application in remote areas. They are being used to power farm irrigation systems and provide electric lights for fire lookout towers and warning lights for railroad crossings and highway construction projects.

Although the federal cutback of funds has meant a reduction in research and development on photovoltaics, many in the industry in the US see competition in the PV marketplace, without government support, as healthy.

In a recent issue of Business Week, William H. O'Connor, manager of the Silicon Division at Solavolt International, a joint venture of Motorola Inc. and Shell Oil Company, indicated that the industry expected no adverse long-term effect from the cutbacks. The government's General Accounting Office supported this optimism with a study that indicates that ''the outlook for widespread use of photovoltaic energy in this century appears favorable.'' But critics add that the outlook may be more favorable for the Japanese than the Americans.

According to a representative of the Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colo., the Japanese government supports its photovoltaic industry by providing funds for capital equipment. The companies pay only for the costs of labor and the overhead. US companies, on the other hand, have been forced by Reagan administration cutbacks to offer their ''better technology'' in competition with better financing terms offered by the Japanese companies.

This ''better deal'' style of negotiations was evident when the Martin Marietta Corporation attempted to bid against a Japanese company for a major job in Mexico. According to Tom Mayfield, a Marietta sales representative, the Japanese government ''came in and offered to give a 2 percent loan for 20 years if Mexico would deal with Japanese firms. They took the deal, although we had a much better product.''

While similar stories abound in the industry, such aggressive marketing has caused some industry analysts to wonder whether, in time, the US will become as dependent upon Japan for its photovoltaic products as it is on OPEC for oil.

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Ironically, however, the Japanese may, in turn, become dependent upon the low utility rates available in the US to develop their future thin-film photovoltaic products.

Because the beginning of the manufacturing process is so energy intensive and Japanese utility costs so high, representatives of the Japanese industry have begun exploring US cities such as Portland, Ore., as possible sites to pursue their world market dominance.

This could lead to a joint-venture agreement between US and Japanese companies that would allow the US photovoltaic industry to maintain its optimistic stance: mixing ''the best technology'' with the ''best deal.''

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