April 05, 2011
By: by Larry Rulison, Business writer, Times Union
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer was at the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering Monday pressuring the Obama administration to award the school $100 million to create a solar electric manufacturing consortium that would turn the Capital Region into a major center for the solar industry.
Nearly a year ago, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it was making $165 million available to strengthen the country's solar electric -- also known as photovoltaic -- manufacturing sector. The sector has increasingly been overtaken by factories in China and Germany.
"We want to bring it back," Schumer said, speaking at the school's $7 billion Albany NanoTech complex. "The hope lies in this laboratory."
In seeking the grant, the NanoCollege and the University of Central Florida are creating what's known as the U.S. Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium that will work closely with Sematech, the Albany-based computer chip research consortium that put Austin, Texas, on the map.
The consortium has already been promised an additional $400 million in private and state funding if the Department of Energy grant is secured, said Alain Kaloyeros, chief executive officer at the NanoCollege
Sematech was created in the late 1980s as a way for the federal government to support the U.S. computer chip industry in its battle with Japanese chip makers.
Kaloyeros said Sematech was started with $300 million in funding, half of that from the federal government, and this Department of Energy grant could have just as big an impact. The solar industry uses many of the same manufacturing techniques that are used in the chip industry, so the NanoCollege would be able to immediately set up a manufacturing line to test and develop the leading-edge solar technologies. The goal is to drop the cost to a level that makes solar electric generation more cost effective than power generated with fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.
"It will be the equivalent of what we did with Sematech on the nano chip side," Kaloyeros said.
A decision is expected from the Obama Administration within a week or two, Schumer said.
Department of Energy spokeswoman Ebony Meeks said they "plan to announce a decision soon."
The NanoCollege has some stiff competition, though. One of the other finalists for the grant is a group that includes the University of Toledo in Ohio and Dow Corning of Midland, Mich.
Toledo is a hotbed of solar technology development and suppliers. One of the country's largest solar manufacturers, First Solar, has a 900,000-square-foot solar manufacturing plant that employs 1,000 people outside the city.
Senators from both Ohio and Michigan -- two suffering Rust Belt states that would be key to President Obama's re-election plans -- have also put their support behind that group, which calls itself the Solar Valley Research Enterprise and would put research centers in both states.