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Solar Energy And A Near Miss

I first met Harold McMaster, the man Fortune once called America’s “glass genius,” in the early 1980’s. That meeting, and that man, led to a powerful impact on my life and career — and the Toledo, Ohio economy.

Michael Ferrari, the then-interim president of Bowling Green State University, called me and said ‘I have a local scientist I’d like you to meet.’

That led to my late wife Sue and I meeting Harold and Helen McMaster over lunch at a County Club in Perrysburg, Ohio. The idea was that Harold McMaster would receive an honorary degree from BGSU, and the hope was that he would make a donation for our Physical Sciences Laboratory building then under construction on campus. Indeed, he was to give the university $250,000 and we purchased a state-of-the-art spectrometer for the new building.

But Harold, the founder of the hugely successful firm tempered glass manufacturer Glasstech, and I spent most of the lunch talking about mutual interests, including laminating windshields for safety glass.

We soon figured out that you could take two pieces of flat glass, inject a liquid that solidified with light between them, turn on the light, and – poof — you have a laminated windshield. Unfortunately, the near-plexiglas materials were expensive, and it was not possible to make a profit doing that. But in 1984, the inventor turned to his next idea — photovoltaic solar energy conversion, and founded Glasstech Solar.

Later, The Toledo Blade would call him the “father of commercial-scale solar energy.” But that was still far in the future.

Mr. McMaster was, even at our first meeting, a visionary. He soon told me “there’s an offer on the table from Southern California Edison that they will buy all the power one can make from the sun for a dollar a watt. I want to put photovoltaic converters (think the electric eyes in elevator doors) on large pieces of flat glass and lay this glass all over parking lot surfaces in southern California.” Can you think of that idea? The parking lots at Chautauqua Institution covered with glass panels that provided all the electric power the Grounds would need for the summer.

Soon, he began hiring research talent from around the world to achieve that goal of “a dollar a watt.” Now, I do have to apologize for my physicist friends. They don’t speak English. They use ‘physics speak.’

Wouldn’t it have been much easier if Harold McMaster and his team had talked in terms of how many connected “electric eyes” would be needed to get the required energy output from the sun?

For a solar cell is really a series of connected electric eyes in a capsule, that are activated to make an electrical current when hit with sunlight.

That was the idea, anyway. But he then had to find a way to make it work.

Using his own money, Mr. McMaster went around the world trying to find physicists and engineers who do just that. After setting up Glasstech Solar, he connected with the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).

He changed the company’s name, and changed it again, attracted investors and finally settled on the name First Solar, in part to make it attractive to First Energy, the company that could fund him to get to $1 per watt.

But instead Mr. McMaster and the other investors sold the business to John Walton, the ‘green’ Walmart heir. That didn’t work out so well for the Toledo area because Walton’s team, True North Partners, LLC, moved the budding First Solar to Tempe, AZ., and brought in a new management team and lots of scientists from Berkeley, Cal Tech and Stanford.

Yet First Solar built its first plant in Perrysburg Township, Ohio where I live; then a second and now its third is under construction. Their factories occupy more than three million square feet, and the company was making a profit of more than half a billion dollars by 2015, a figure which may be higher now.

The company long ago exceeded its original goal of providing electricity for a dollar a watt. Though many of its sales are in other countries, First Solar, Inc. is an American manufacturer of solar panels, and a provider of other power plants and supporting services that include recycling.

John Walton was killed in a plane crash in 2005, but his son Lukas owns the company today. Currently, it has 6,400 employees.

Sadly, while the plants are in my backyard, First Solar doesn’t have that many connections to the research community in northwest Ohio. Before I left Bowling Green I was arguing for a new building for the Center for Photochemical Sciences, and set up a reprise of that initial meeting Sue and I had with the McMasters years before. By this time we were good friends, so Sue made lunch, and I talked to Harold about a major contribution to my hoped-for building.

Sadly, Harold McMaster passed away in 2003 after a long and distinguished career in the glass business. The sale went through, but it wasn’t as lucrative as he had hoped. His gift to the Center never happened.

But what a difference it would have made for research in our region if it had! And when you see a solar panel, or a field of them, think of that man who grew up on a farm in Deshler, Ohio the oldest of 11 children. He went on to make millions in the flat glass and automotive glass business but wasn’t satisfied. Converting sunlight to electricity was a greater goal, and his foresight plus the work of many of the world’s scientists made it happen.

Douglas C. Neckers is McMaster Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also former Chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y. See his work at 3dscienceblog.com.

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