Wacker committed to solar energy
by BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
Feb 23, 2014 | 3762 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WACKER POLYSILICON’s Charleston plant is viewed from the air last month. Completion is expected to remain on schedule with operations beginning in 2015. Submitted photo
WACKER POLYSILICON’s Charleston plant is viewed from the air last month. Completion is expected to remain on schedule with operations beginning in 2015. Submitted photo

Dirt trucks that could line from here to Denver. Enough concrete to fill a football stadium. Enough steel to build 22 Statues of Liberty. More than $2 billion dollars spent.

Those four measurements do not even scratch the surface of the size of the Wacker Polysilicon facility now under construction in Charleston.

Construction began nearly three years ago on the almost 600-acre site and will reach the finishing stage in 2015.

What Wacker Charleston will produce is polysilicon and lots of it.

Polysilicon is the raw material for two industries — semiconductors and solar.

Anyone who uses a cellphone, computer or television, or any electronic device comes into contact with the substance on a daily basis through the use of semiconductors.

The local plant will specifically cater to the solar energy market where their output will be used to produce the cells that can collect the sun’s energy.

And, for anyone who might think Wacker is not committed to the success of the Bradley County facility, one only has to look at the history of Wacker.

“It took 50 years to reach a capacity of 37 kilotons at our parent plant in Burghausen, Germany,” said site manager Dr. Konrad Bachhuber. “Here, we are going from zero to 20 kilotons at the start.”

He said being committed to the solar energy “contributes to a renewable energy source.”

“This technology doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases or emissions,” he said.

“This is fantastic, green renewable source of energy. This is a mega-trend worldwide because everyone want to avoid emissions, and having the renewable energy is getting to be more and more important.”

Brachhuber said currently the most important markets for solar in 2013 were China, Japan and the United States.

With the U.S. third in the world for solar product, “this makes this the perfect environment for our final product.”

Projections are showing the demands for polysilicon will increase 25 percent over the next year.

The anticipation of that increase after a slowing of the market explains why Wacker elected to slow their construction schedule down in order to be better synchronized with the market demand.

The company is extremely proud of the product they produce, and that leads to the seemingly ultra-high security around the construction site.

Bachhuber says the purity of the product the Wacker process produces can be compared to “having one typographical error when typing a 1,000 page novel 50,000 times.”

“We have been in this business for 50 years, and through those years we have developed and refined our process,” he said. “This is a very competitive market, and allowing almost any detail could give what we have worked to develop away.”

In layman’s terms, it’s like a grandmother who does not want to give away her award-winning biscuit recipe.

Special badges must be produced at almost every corner, and if one has a cellphone, the lens for the camera applications are taped over.

A tour of the plant is almost overwhelming once the buildings and structures are seen up close.

The size alone can be somewhat unnerving, but Buchhuber explains because of the amount of production the facility will do the plant had to be designed so large.

Even though the construction rate has been slowed, there are still approximately 1,500 workers on the site, and Brachhuber says that number will eventually climb back to peak levels of nearly 2,500 possibly before the year is complete.

“Ninty-nine percent of the concrete buildings are complete. The steel structures are close to completion. What has to be done now is the final installation of the mechanics and electrical,” Bachhuber said. “This will take another year and a half. We will be ready to start up this site.”

Bachhber likes to joke that he is a Southerner as well — although he’s talking about the southern part of Germany.

He has lived here for two years and says he enjoys being here and the people who are an important factor in the success of Wacker’s Charleston plant.

“I personally enjoy living here. This is a great place to live,” Bachhuber said.

“This is a great place to set up such a facility because we see the people here have a high work ethic and the right attitude,” he said. “They are curious and want to learn and are capable of learning.

“We have excellent team members here, and many of them are new to the topic. But, they were curious enough and took the challenge to learn this highly sophisticated process. We are really pleased with the capability we find here.”

Bachhuber admits Wacker may have been somewhat lax in becoming a part of the community, but is adamant it will, wants to and has begun those efforts.

“We are still developing our community activities,” he said. “Our major focus right now is the construction and getting operations up and running.”

He said there are several areas Wacker wants to be involved in, with the major one being education.

“In the end, we need educated people to run such a facility has we have here,” Buchhuber said. “It’s not enough just to have the steel, equipment and the concrete. You need to also have the education to support it.”

Wacker has contributed $150,000 to Cleveland State for their technology facility, donated valedictorian scholarships to area schools and has begun a new science award Cleveland City and Bradley County high school students.

It provides a $1,000 scholarship directly to college tuition to students showing a desire and passion for science and engineering.

“The idea was to take the program more in the direction of our company’s focuses — science, engineering and math,” Buchhaber said.

“We want to encourage young people who are interested in those subjects. Walker is one of many companies who appreciate those who demonstrate the interest in those skills.”

Essays, transcripts and applications for this year’s award must be postmarked by March 18.

Bacchuber said once the plant in operation, it will, like other Wacker plants, host tours for the public.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime project for all of us who are working here, and we are very proud of the work we are doing,” Bachhuber said. “This plant will be a pillar of the company’s future growth.”