Have You Overlooked


Engineering has been one of the more lucrative areas in which to start a career. However, many have missed a sub-segment with strong growth potential: photovoltaics.

“In the last several years the photovoltaics module price has dropped from $10 to $2.50-$3,” says Joshua Pearce, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan Technological University. “But now the balance systems and, in particular, the racking components, have dominated costs. These areas until recently were almost ignored. There can always be more innovation in racking. Right now you have steel frame ones and extrusion holding modules on acceptable buildings. Companies are developing polymer-based racks also. But, really, we haven’t even scratched the surface of what could be done.”

Building Opportunities

Any surface exposed to sunlight most of the year is fair game for photovoltaics deployment and places to put it range from warehouse rooftops to a Wal-Mart, Pearce says. “Unfortunately, a lot of recent construction of big box buildings haven’t been capable of handling extra significant mass, so a mechanical engineer can design racking systems that don’t weigh much or could shore-up roof structures. That is an exploding business all throughout the world. More solar access on a roof can be a revenue stream for a business or a building owner.”

Joshua Pearce with laminated photovoltaic panels in his Michigan Tech lab. Image: MTU.edu

Large, industrial-scale photovoltaics also can be lucrative. “They’re putting out 10 megawatt solar farms or larger,” says Pearce. “There are racking designs for those that [are] more complicated. Could do tracking single access or dual access tracking. It can change a tilt angle depending on the time of year. You can concentrate photovoltaics to align a mirror to shoot at solar. There are a whole slew of small- and medium-sized companies making tracking solutions to squeeze more energy out of solar.”

Looking Ahead

Future opportunities should also get mechanical engineers excited, according to Pearce. “We’re going to see more building-integrated photovoltaics where solar cells are part of a building, getting rid of roof materials and going with solar cells,” he says. “It’s in Europe and Japan where we have solar slate or solar integrated panels. You can subtract the cost of finishing materials and that alone can pay for solar cells. Closely tied to it is photovoltaic thermal systems—not just creating electricity but using waste heat to preheat the hot air for buildings to make domestic hot water.”

Opportunity can also be found in designing robots for photovoltaic production. “A lot of the actual manufacturing of solar cells is done by robots,” he says. “Factories the size of small cities are churning out tons of material a day this way. Innovation in automation is needed.”

Pearce says many don’t realize that every four minutes there is another photovoltaic system being set up in the U.S. and he believes it will only become more common. “In 2000, this industry was barely talked about, and now, honestly, it’s serious business.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

In 2000, this industry was barely talked about, and now, honestly, it’s serious business.

Prof. Joshua Pearce, Michigan Technological University


September 2014

by Eric Butterman, ASME.org