Dow’s Solar-Powered Shingles

Dow’s announcement this week that it developed solar shingles is interesting not because it represents a big technological breakthrough—it doesn’t.

Dow: Nail-and-play

Dow’s solar shingles are interesting precisely because they offer the prospect of turning something exotic, like solar power, into something mundane, like new shingles. That’s the kind of thing that all new energies—from biofuels to electric cars—need to do in order to escape their category as “niche” solutions and start becoming ubiquitous.

Dow, the big chemical company, said that after a couple of years of effort, it’s ready to start production of ashpalt shingles that incorporate a layer of thin-film solar panel. For now, Dow will get the thin-film solar from Global Solar, rather than trying to leverage any of the exotic solar-power solutions Dow is working on in-house. Dow will start limited production next year before ramping up in 2011.

Unlike many of the recent announcements in the solar sector—from breakthroughs in efficiency to new production techniques—the thrust of the Powerhouse shingles is simple: Since they can be nailed to a roof like regular shingles, they require no specialized labor or installation. That means lower installation costs, which—just like incremental technology improvements—means electricity generated from solar power will be a little bit cheaper.

Or a lot. Jane Palmieri, the managing director of Dow Solar Solutions, says the new shingles should be 10% to 15% cheaper than a standard solar-power rack, and as much as 40% cheaper than a full, integrated solar-power installation.

Dow figures the new product could be a $5 billion market by 2015. That’s because the market for roofing shingles is huge, and if Dow can tap into just a fraction of that—places where sun shines, with roofs facing the right way, and the like—it could clean up.

To put that in perspective, Dow’s estimate of the size solar-shingle market is bigger than many recent estimates of the market for advanced batteries meant to power electric cars.

One potentially big driver? Last year’s extension of government tax breaks for solar-power systems, which increased the amount of money homeowners could receive for installing new systems.

One state, in particular, will be watching Dow’s shingles with baited breath: Michigan. The initial production will be done at Dow’s Midland, Mich. factory. The full-scale production run has yet to find a home.

By Keith Johnson, The Wall Street Journal Blog, October 9, 2009.


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