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May/June 2010
Feature

Shedding Light on Alternative
Energy Standards

ASTM Committee E44 and Standards for Solar Energy

The interest in and demand for standards in the solar energy field have led to new and renewed work in ASTM Committee E44 on Solar, Geothermal and Other Alternative Energy Sources.

Members of ASTM International Committee E44 are devoting a great deal of energy to developing new standards.

That’s fitting for several reasons.

Committee E44 on Solar, Geothermal and Other Alternative Energy Sources focuses on standards related to the conversion of solar and geothermal renewable energy into usable forms. Demand for alternative energy continues to grow as the cost of fossil fuels spikes and dips and as industries, governments and the public seek more green choices for heating their offices and homes and running their automobiles. And alternative energy provides options for communities in developing countries that cannot tie into existing electricity grids to gain power for such basics as drinking water.

Committee E44’s main focus today is on solar energy, which its research in early 2009 determined was the area in which standards were most needed. And a request from a division of the U.S. Department of Energy asking for a standard for glass for solar applications fostered new interest that led to the creation of E44’s latest subcommittee, E44.20 on Glass for Solar Applications, in September 2009.

Market Growth

There are a number of reasons why the committee has shifted its major efforts to solar energy, according to Committee E44 chairman George Kelly, documentation and process manager for BP Solar, a division of BP Oil that is based in Frederick, Md.

“I think it’s a few things. One reason is that is where most of the expertise primarily is. Our focus has been mainly on solar for the last seven or eight years,” says Kelly, who has served on E44 for more than 10 years, about five as chair. “President Obama’s energy plan emphasizes renewable sources, including solar. And I think the size of the market has now reached the point where some bigger companies, some bigger investors, are interested in pursuing solar energy.”

While solar power isn’t new – the DOE places its start at around the seventh century B.C., when it says people began using glass and sunlight to start fires – solar power has become more familiar to and popular with the general public in the last few decades.

Today the field continues to grow. Photovoltaic or solar cell systems or arrays, which produce electricity when exposed to light, are helping trim energy bills in homes sprinkled throughout the world and providing energy from the tops of large stores like Walmart. They can be found at such research facilities as the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and in colleges and universities across the United States.

However, the systems are not limited to the United States, nor even the world’s wealthiest nations. According to businessGreen.com, a dozen European firms have agreed to construct solar thermal power plants in North Africa that could meet up to 15 percent of Europe’s energy needs. And Kelly’s own company, BP Solar, has two mega-cell plants, including one in India.

In more industrialized nations, solar power is helping people deal with high fuel costs. In remote areas of developing countries, where residents cannot tap into traditional electrical supplies, solar panels and modules are improving the quality of life, providing power for heat, hot water and other items that may enable them to become more self sufficient.

Face of the Future

Tomorrow, the DOE predicts, all “buildings will feature energy-efficient design, construction and materials as well as renewable energy technologies. In effect, each building will both conserve energy and produce its own supply, to be one of a new generation of cost-effective ‘zero-energy buildings’ that have no net annual need for nonrenewable energy.” The DOE also forecasts that eventually everything from vehicles to clothes could produce power. Within 10 years, DOE says, “photovoltaic power will be competitive in price with traditional sources of electricity.”

As alternative energy production continues to evolve, Committee E44’s goal in part is to help energy producers, manufacturers of solar panel components and others get there safely via standards that address all aspects of the field. To meet this goal, Committee E44 has five standards-developing subcommittees on solar heating and cooling systems and materials; photovoltaic electric power conversion; geothermal field development, utilization and materials; and glass for solar applications.

The committee, formed in 1978, oversees 49 standards that deal with a wide range of topics for designers, manufacturers, government agencies, end users and more, and address such issues as:

  • Installation and service of solar space heating systems for one- and two-family dwellings,
  • Determining the resistance of solar collector covers to hail by impact with propelled ice balls,
  • Electrical performance of photovoltaic cells using reference cells under simulated sunlight,
  • Photovoltaic modules in cyclic temperature and humidity environments, and
  • Testing polymeric seal materials for geothermal and/or high temperature service under sealing stress.

Work in Process

Currently, the committee has several work items in process:

  • The installation of roof-mounted photovoltaic arrays,
  • Reporting photovoltaic non-concentrator system performance,
  • Weathering of photovoltaic modules,
  • Accelerated life testing of photovoltaic modules, and
  • Minimum surface compression requirements in heat-treated glass used for solar cell modules and panels.

At the first official meeting of Subcommittee E44.20 on Glass for Solar Applications in January at DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C., members focused on identifying standards required for the properties of glass (optical, mechanical, electrical and more), prioritized five projects and formed task groups to expand upon those five projects. Those projects include test methods for transmission, reflection, emissivity, haze and optical distortion of glass for solar applications and the reliability and degradation of glass for solar applications.

Douglas Warren Hall, Ph.D., chair of Subcommittee E44.20 and director of Product Technology, Photovoltaic Glass Technologies for Corning Inc., Corning, N.Y., says that the newest subcommittee has important responsibilities as it advances the understanding of glass for solar applications. The committee’s scope includes glass for flat panel photovoltaics, concentrated photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal systems. Though the subcommittee does not have any active standards, it is working on one for the minimum surface compression requirements in heat-treated glass used for solar cell modules and panels.

“Renewable energy, and solar energy specifically, must play a major role in the solution of the critical issue of carbon-induced climate change. Glass is a material used in all solar applications, but it is not well understood by the solar community,” Hall says. “In order to promote the technology and solve significant technical and cost challenges, we need a common technical language, test methods and scientific understanding. Standards groups play an important role in improving the understanding of a material and a technology.”

Hall adds, “We have already established areas that need work, such as reliability and degradation and optical test methods. We now need to take these areas and push forward, through consensus methods, to define a common terminology and some critical test methods and raise the level of understanding of what glass can and cannot do in this application.”

The need for more standards overall does not surprise Kelly or others. “In the 1970s and ‘80s, we were struggling on a shoestring. We had no money and no sales. Now, finally, we’re on the curve to where solar is an industry,” Kelly says. “It started with the energy crisis of the ’70s, but it has been sort of a slow, steady growth for a long time. People were always predicting, ‘Yes, this is going to take off.’ Now I think it’s hit the point on the curve where it’s way bigger than it was even a few years ago.” That growth, he says, has impacted the need for standards, especially as larger companies have entered the field.

Avoiding Disaster

“More mature companies realize standards are a good, established way of doing business, that they provide a basis of understanding between the customer and the producer about what to expect. Also, standards help to keep the industry from having disasters. It’s in our interest to make sure the whole industry has a baseline level of quality,” Kelly says.

The demand for standards is widespread. “I think the overriding goal is to establish some standards and rules that make the industry safe for customers so they can expect a safe product that performs as intended without unintended side effects,” Kelly notes. For example, he said, a task group is writing a standard for installing solar panels on roofs. A manufacturer suggested the standard because people were installing solar panels on roofs and when some leaked, customers assumed the product was flawed. The committee determined there was no existing standard for mounting solar panels on roofs, so it focused on getting a consensus of best procedures in the industry and determining what will work and what must be avoided, according to Kelly.

The growth of various aspects of solar technology has spurred the need as well. For a long time, Kelly says, Committee E44 was quite heavily focused on how to test a standard panel to determine how much electricity it produced. Then environmental tests and mechanical cycling tests to prove the panels could survive outdoors became a focus. “Now that the industry has grown to the point where people are buying and installing thousands at a time, they started to care about how to mount them and whether they will they be reliable, whether they will pay back on their investment,” he said.

Carl Osterwald, principal engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a DOE facility based in Golden, Colo., that focuses in part on solar power, biofuels and wind energy, also has observed flux in the alternative energy field and in the development of standards.

“We’ve been able to keep the standards alive even when photovoltaics and solar were just about dead in the early 1990s,” says Osterwald, who is secretary and former chairman of Committee E44 and current chairman of Subcommittee E44.09 on Photovoltaic Electric Power Conversion. “Manufacturers would come and go. You’d see a lot of turnover. The industry was just so small. It was just so different.” Today, he adds, growth in the solar field has prompted the demand for more standards, and Committee E44 is as strong if not stronger in size and commitment than it ever was.

“The major difference in E44 between now and the early 1980s is the solar thermal (solar domestic hot water heating) standards and radiometric instrumentation standards,” Osterwald says. “The solar thermal activities became dormant when the solar tax credits were ended in 1985, and a few years later the radiometric subcommittee moved into Committee G03 [on Weathering and Durability] from E44. By 1990, E44.09 on PV was the only active subcommittee. And by 1995, E44.09 was nearly inactive with the exception of a few PV manufacturers and the DOE national laboratories.”

Osterwald’s own subcommittee has experienced growth in recent years, especially among people in the roofing and solar glass fields.

“There’s nothing else like it,” Osterwald says of the work the group is undertaking. “[Standards] are important for people who actually install photovoltaic systems.” Indeed, he notes, ASTM’s photovoltaic standards have been referenced in Underwriters Laboratories Inc. safety standards, making them indirectly a part of the National Fire Protection Association’s National Electric Code, which covers such items as power line equipment, outlets, plugs and wires, according to Osterwald.

Another important function of Committee E44, according to Osterwald, has been its involvement in the DOE-funded Solar America Board for Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs), with the ASTM group collaborating with the Solar ABCs to help determine what standards are needed in the photovoltaic field. “It turned out a lot of the recommendations they made came directly from E44,” he says. “It raised the visibility of E44.”

“I think the biggest difference is that new people are seeing there are distinct advantages to developing standards within ASTM. Much of new interest and participation has come about because of the Department of Energy’s Solar ABCs program,” Osterwald says.

Committee E44 has more than 200 members, most from the United States but also from China, Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries. The members come from industry (producers of components as well as end users), government, universities, solar panel and solar cell manufacturers, and firms who supply components such as glass and solar simulators. While the committee used to gather once a year, today it meets in a virtual environment every three to four weeks and due to increase in activity will be meeting twice a year.

Christine DeJong, E44’s staff manager, sums up the focus of the committee. “Industry knows how to build the modules. Now the committee will focus on the development of standards that will make them safer, stronger, more reliable, more durable, more efficient.”

 

Patricia Quigley is an award-winning journalist and public relations practitioner who has written for local, regional, national and international publications. She resides in southern New Jersey, where she earned a B.A. in communication and an M.A. in writing from Rowan University.