Despite a banner year, AWEA is fighting for more permanent change for the industry. The Energy Policy Act continues to pass the bill for a year or so at a time; it is never allowed to expire, but each time it is only extended for a year or two. The small clusters of time create an unstable environment, says Salerno. “It’s better than it was seven or eight years ago, but if you look forward two years from now as a manufacturer, you still don’t know what the industry is going to look like or what the policies will be, which is not favorable for expanding the industry,” she says. “Our goal is to get something in place that creates a long-term, stable environment for the industry to continue to grow.” And with only 1.8 percent of the U.S. power mix compared to Europe’s 10+ percent, growth is a good thing.

The Sunny Side of Panels

Compared to wind energy, solar energy sometimes resembles the forgotten star of yesteryear. Yet solar panels still have vast untapped potential within the composites industry.
One company taking advantage of that potential is California-based BioSolar.

BioSolar has developed a drop-in replacement for traditional petroleum-based photovoltaic backsheets (often criticized for disposability due to toxicity) with a bio-polymer composite backsheet, which gives it a boost in life-cycle analysis. The backsheet serves the dual purpose of an electric insulator and a protector for the cell itself from outside elements. “Whereas most are made from petroleum-based derivatives, we are taking a bio-polymer and adding different materials or combining it with wood fibers to create a product that improves properties and is recyclable,” says Stan Levy, BioSolar’s chief technology officer.

Current CEO David Lee started a company based on the name and what it implied; namely, renewable energy through solar power. “Lee is a smart guy, but he didn’t have extensive knowledge in photovoltaic materials, whereas I’ve been in industry for 25 years,” says Levy. “He soon found me and the rest is history.”

The two started the company and agreed to develop a solar panel backsheet from sustainable materials. “While the requirements for photovoltaic materials are stringent, backsheets are what in the industry we’d call the lowest-hanging fruit, thus the easiest way to get into the business,” says Levy. “If we tried to break into the market with a product from the front side of a panel, we’d have to replace glass, requiring us to look for a green product that is totally transparent, which is very difficult. It would be the same with adhesives as well.”