With all of the reports lately that cleantech investment is taking a nose dive in the U.S., especially as compared to investment in China and Europe, it is important to remember how big the renewable energy industry has actually become. The solar energy industry ecosystem, for example, may be filled with niche players like SunPower, First Solar, and Yingli Green Energy, but recent (as well as not so recent) moves by well known manufacturing giants like Alcoa, Hyundai and Samsung are bringing newfound attention--and money--into the solar energy sector.
There are many familiar brands with big plans to capitalize on their market presence, R&D skills, manufacturing capability and distribution channels to make a big splash in the solar industry in years and decades to come. Here are 14 of the biggest companies you may not have known that are making the strategic decision to invest in a sunny future.
With components and materials designed and marketed for the thin film, crystalline silicon, concentrated photovoltaic and concentrated solar power markets, 3M (NYSE: MMM) is making an aggressive play in the solar energy industry. 3M has been making solar films for 25 years but it wasn't until early 2009 that the company formed a renewable energy division to house its growing solar and wind energy programs.
The world’s leading producer of primary aluminum, fabricated aluminum and alumina, Alcoa (NYSE: AA), has also discovered that lightweight aluminum is perfect for all kinds of solar applications including concentrating solar power and aluminum Solar Shades embedded with solar photovoltaic panels. In March of this year Alcoa launched a partnership with the National Renewable Energy Lab to develop CSP systems using highly-reflective aluminum troughs rather than glass mirrors.
Known for making high quality power tools, auto parts and consumer appliances, Bosch's (BSLRF.PK) newest division, Bosch Solar Energy, is focusing on several areas of the solar sector from high-efficiency crystalline and thin-film solar cells and modules to complete solar power plants. In August, Bosch Solar Energy opened a new solar PV production plant in Germany that houses 1,100 employees and has the capacity to produce 10,000 cells per hour, bringing Bosch's total production capacity to 630 MW.
Owned equally by The Dow Chemical Company and Corning, the New York-based glass and ceramics powerhouse, Dow Corning is a global leader in silicon-based technology. Offering more than 7,000 products and services, Dow Corning now also provides materials and services for the entire photovoltaic supply chain, from the basic building blocks of silicon feedstock for ingots and wafers production to solar module frame assembly and sealing materials. Last year alone, Dow Corning and its joint venture, Hemlock Semiconductor Corporation, committed $1 billion dollars over the next four years to expand its polycrystalline silicone capacity.
The well-known chemical manufacturer may have a checkered environmental past, but the Delaware-based E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (NYSE: DD), is also a leading materials supplier to the solar photovoltaic industry. With more than 25 years of experience in PV materials development, DuPont has quietly become a major player in the solar industry. In September, DuPont Microcircuit Materials developed a roadmap of proposed technology options to help enable the industry goal for conversion efficiency of crystalline silicon solar cells beyond 20 percent by 2012.
Founded in 1911 as an axle and spring manufacturer, Eaton Corporation (NYSE: ETN) is now a global manufacturing powerhouse, employing 70,000 people worldwide, working in a diverse collection of divisions from truck and automotive to aerospace and industrial plastics. Eaton's solar division is nothing to sneeze at either, offering packaged and customized solar power solutions, from utility-scale solar power to residential solar power controls, switches and electronic components. Working with the Tennessee Valley Association and the Electric Power Research Institute, Eaton has also begun developing solar-assisted electric vehicle charging stations.
While it shouldn't come as a big surprise that GE (NYSE: GE) has products in the commercial, residential and utility-scale solar sector, the company is not the first name people usually think of when they think of American solar companies. But GE Energy offers products and solutions for utility, commercial and residential customers, ranging from thin film and roof-integrated solar modules to large-scale power plant design and construction. In the spring of 2010, however, GE announced it would be focusing its R&D efforts on the burgeoning thin-film solar PV market.
In addition to its recent incursion into the small wind turbine market, Honeywell International (NYSE: HON) has also jumped into the solar "plug and play" game. The Solar SmartGrid takes all of the equipment required in solar photovoltaic systems, shrinks it, and connects it directly to the back of the solar panel. By including this conversion equipment on the back of the panel, Honeywell says the power production of the system is improved, system safety is improved, the installation process is made easier and the number of separate pieces of equipment to buy and install is dramatically eliminated.
Better known for making cars and building ships (the company is the world's number one ship builder) South Korea-based Hyundai Heavy Industries (009540.KS) first got involved in the renewable energy business in 2005 with the addition of solar photovoltaic modules and wind turbines to its manufacturing quiver. Today, Hyundai manufactures 270 megawatts of solar modules annually.
Along with Samsung and Hyundai, LG Electronics, Inc. (LGERF.PK)) is one of three South Korean manufacturing giants to increase its activity in the solar power sector in recent years. Best known in the U.S. as a leader in consumer electronics, mobile communications and home appliances sector, LG began working with solar in the 1990s by integrating solar PV with clock towers, street signs and street lights. More recently, however, LG began to ramp up production of consumer-grade solar PV modules and starting in 2010, LG will manufacture and supply crystalline cells and modules to global markets.
Cars, TVs, steam generators, colored pencils and, of course, solar panels. Mitsubishi Electric (TYO: 6503) has been manufacturing inverters for years but in 2003 the company began positioning itself to make a big splash in the global solar industry with the manufacture of solar modules -- both polycrystalline silicon and thin-film -- and they are producing some of the most efficient solar cells in both categories. The company has achieved a respectable 14.8% conversion efficiency in their thin-film solar cells and 18.9% for their multi-crystalline cells. By 2012, Mitsubishi expects to be manufacturing 500 megawatts of solar PV capacity annually.
Another one of the South Korean heavyweights, Samsung (005930.KS), the largest commercial conglomerate in South Korea, recently announced it would invest a hefty sum of $20.6 billion into its solar business in an effort to catch up to established solar players and grab hold of a share of the solar industry. From the design and construction of utility-scale solar installations to developing and marketing the world's first solar-powered cell phones, Samsung has big designs on being heavily involved in solar, no matter the scale.
Considering Siemens' reach into all things energy, this one probably isn't as surprising as some of the others. Siemens AG (NYSE: SI) is focusing on established technologies for the utilization of solar energy and has developed their solar division accordingly. Siemens offers turnkey solutions for large-scale photovoltaic plants including the manufacture of solar inverters; and customized products and solutions for concentrating solar power plants, including solar fields, power blocks, and critical solar power plant components.
Toshiba International Corporation (TOSBF.PK) is a leading manufacturer of power generation equipment and industrial motors but only recently has the Japanese tech company expressed interest in the solar industry. Launching its residential solar division in the spring of 2010, Toshiba has the ambitious goal of cornering 10 percent of the rooftop solar market in Japan by 2013.
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Photo: pv411 at flickr