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December 2, 2009

Solar energy goes mainstream

Arise Technologies entrepreneur Ian Maclellan finds satisfaction in the dual-pronged pragmatism that comes from founding a successful solar technology company.

Olivia FamaArise Technologies entrepreneur Ian Maclellan finds satisfaction in the dual-pronged pragmatism that comes from founding a successful solar technology company.

“You get a chance to make a difference,” he says of the corporation he founded in 1996. “It’s not just a product, it’s something that has significant environmental benefits for the planet -- it’s the thrill of creating a business and also trying to make a buck and save the planet all in one day.”

According to U.S. based SEIA (Solar Energies Industry Association), we harness solar energy through four ways: photovoltaics (converting light to electricity), heating and cooling systems (solar thermal), concentrating solar power (utility scale), and lighting.

An early goal set out by Waterloo-based Arise was to play a role in taking solar mainstream, a feat that the company has undertaken through the versatility of its three divisions; systems, photovoltaic PV cells and silicon.

For the last 13 years, the company’s systems division (of which Maclellan is currently president) has assessed customer need to harvest free energy from the sun at a reasonable cost. Systems division projects include rooftops for both residential and commercial customers as well as solar farms.

“Customers want to buy a system from a company that knows what they’re doing and that is reliable,” says Maclellan, noting this division is the key area of contact between Arise and its customers.

Inspiration for the PV cells division came from the company’s aim to provide a better solution for its customers. “We decided that if we could deliver high-efficiency solar cells at a more cost-effective price, then that would allow us to deliver better systems,” he says. Arise’s PV cells are produced in their plant in Bischofswerda, Germany, which opened in 2008.

The advent of the great silicon shortage from 2004- 2008 led the company to brainstorm a more economical way of refining high-quality silicon for the exact requirements of  their solar cells, a project currently underway at the company’s pilot plant in Kitchener, of which the Canadian government contributed $6.5 million towards the $20 million overall cost.

Maclellan says the cogent interplay between these three divisions strengthens Arise’s product offering and increases customer confidence.

“If you look at the whole situation and do a fair amount of analysis you quickly come to the conclusion that solar is the biggest source of energy for our planet,” he says.

“If you take all of the coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium -- all of the quote conventional energy sources that we know about -- the total amount there is the same amount of energy we get from the sun in about 40 days, so it’s not a function of if we’re going to go to solar energy, it’s just a question of when.”

But why would Arise build in Germany instead of at home in Canada?

“Being new to solar cell manufacturing we needed to be where the customers are and be able to leverage off the infrastructure of the industry in Germany.” The second factor was the funding from the German government which covered $24.5million of the $50-million cost of the plant.

Maclellan points to Germany as a prototype of solar success, noting that it isn’t the best country for solar resources, but had foresight when it came to the power of green energy for the future, where it boasts over 100 companies that manufacture solar-related products, a feat that led to the creation of 42,000 jobs.

Producing jobs in green industries is a major priority for the Ontario government and is addressed in the Green Energy Act, which purports to “make Ontario a global leader in clean, renewable energy and conservation, creating thousands of jobs, economic prosperity, energy security and climate protection.”

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has proposed that the Green Energy Act would create 50,000 jobs in the next three years, which is something Arise knows about, after being responsible for the creation of at least 120 energy jobs.

“I think what the Ontario government seems to be getting at with the proposed Green Energy Act is that if you create a market you create an industry -- but if you try to create an industry without a market you don’t have anything,” says Maclellan.

“We’ve had a lot of input and they’re focusing on three key things,” he says of the government-proposed act. “You have to create the market, have industrial incentive programs, and you have help on the research and development side of things, so companies like ours can differentiate our product.

“They are doing all three and if they pull it off right, then I think creating 50,000 jobs in Ontario is realistic.”

Although government-proposed acts like this one are good news for the solar industry, Arise is no stranger to setbacks. The current economic climate and a decrease in demand for solar cells caused Arise to post a multi-million loss for 2008.

“The vast majority of that was really one-time losses,” he says. “We went through a very challenging start up of a factory and we’re through that, we’ve had a significant change in the market which resulted in some inventory write-downs, but we don’t expect that to happen again -- you can see in our disclosure items that it’s really a onetime thing.”

He predicts that in 10 years solar energy will be mainstream, and uses the analogy of computer technology to make his point. “I think by 2020 solar will be absolutely ubiquitous and you won’t be writing stories about it,” he says. “Do you call up people and say tell me about the Internet?”

Olivia Fama is a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ontario.

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