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More Solar Silicon

Despite energy slump and credit crisis, Wacker expands

by Marc S. Reisch
October 27, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 43

Credit: Wacker Chemie
Polysilicon forms on deposition rods.
Credit: Wacker Chemie
Polysilicon forms on deposition rods.

PLUMMETING OIL PRICES are making renewable energy less financially attractive at the moment, and a global credit crunch is confounding business plans. Undaunted, Wacker Chemie says it will build a nearly $1 billion plant in Germany to make hyperpure polycrystalline silicon, a major component of solar electricity cells.

Wacker will build the 10,000-metric-ton-per-year facility at its Nünchritz site in Saxony and integrate the plant with its existing silicone fluids and polymers operations there. When it reaches full capacity at the end of 2011, the polysilicon plant will employ 450 people. Wacker says it will also raise the capacity of an ongoing expansion at its Burghausen production site in Bavaria, Germany, from 7,000 to 10,000 metric tons.

As energy costs slide and cash gets harder to come by, however, prospects for solar energy companies aren't as bright as they once were. For instance, Schott Solar, a German maker of photovoltaic components, abandoned its $900 million initial public stock offering earlier this month.

Richard M. Winegarner, president of solar consultancy Sage Concepts, says the 40% annual growth rate for solar-cell production over the past few years seems hugely optimistic now. "My personal belief is that by 2012 we will see a glut of solar polysilicon on the market," he says. Even government subsidies, which have helped the solar business percolate along, could be in jeopardy because of the economic slowdown's effect on government finances, Winegarner adds.

Still, Wacker is optimistic about the long-term prospects for the solar energy market. "We expect crystalline solar technology to show continued strong growth and customer demand for polysilicon to remain high," Wacker CEO Rudolf Staudigl says.

So confident is Wacker in solar energy over the long term that it plans to have total polysilicon capacity of 35,500 metric tons by the end of 2011, up from 10,000 metric tons today. The new additions and others now under way will bring Wacker to within hailing distance of its largest competitor, Hemlock Semiconductor. A joint venture of Dow Corning, Shin-Etsu Handotai, and Mitsubishi Materials, Hemlock plans to have polysilicon capacity of 39,000 metric tons by the end of 2011 at its Hemlock, Mich., site.



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