Can Energy-Efficient Windows Revive U.S. Glass Manufacturing?

Ramped-up manufacturing of 'dynamic' glass technologies could bring domestic jobs back to a long-suffering industry

SAGE Electrochromics, Inc
SAGE Electrochromics's energy-efficient window installation at Chabot Community College in Hayward, Calif./Credit: Eric Sahlin

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Glassmaking in America has been in decline for at least a decade as manufacturers have moved production to China and other emerging economies. But can the green-buildings movement spark a revival?

Makers of a new class of energy-efficient “dynamic” windows are establishing factories in the United States. Helping to drive this growth spurt is a new generation of U.S. architects and builders, who are looking beyond solar panels, light-colored roofs and other staple sustainability solutions to meet the growing demand for green housing and commercial buildings.

Rao Mulpuri, CEO of “smart” glass company Soladigm, said the nation’s glassworkers and suppliers are eager for a homegrown product that can give the industry a competitive edge over foreign manufacturers of low-cost traditional windows.

“The industry needs a product like this,” he said.

Mulpuri’s startup in Milpitas, Calif., makes dynamic window systems that can be programmed to tint glass on demand to reduce solar glare, substantially cutting buildings’ lighting, heating and air-conditioning costs.

With funds from Khosla Ventures and GE Energy, the company is turning its California pilot factory into a $130 million facility in Olive Branch, Miss., near Memphis. The new plant will employ 330 people and could start selling and shipping Soladigm glass in early 2012.

Earlier this month, Soladigm’s glass came out unscathed after a rigorous durability test by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The lab used a supercomputer to create a simulation of how the windows would perform and appear after several decades of real-world use.

Soladigm and Sage Electrochromics are the only two dynamic glass companies to have met the durability standard, a validation that gives confidence to U.S. builders who are considering hefty upfront investments in the glass as they seek coveted green certification.

The firms are part of a still-small $5 million global dynamic glass market that is projected to reach $418 million by 2020 on rising demand for green buildings, according to an August report by Boston-based Lux Research.

While the dynamic glass segment will still be “a very small fraction of the global market for architectural windows,”  it will see “a very solid growth niche from a few select companies,” including U.S.-based Soladigm and Sage, said Murray McCutcheon, lead author of the report.

U.S. Glass and Green Construction

Traditional glass manufacturing in the United States has steadily waned in the past decade due to lower-cost production abroad, namely in China, as well as the ongoing recession in the domestic construction industry.

Glass industry jobs fell by nearly 30 percent, or 40,000 positions, from 2001 to 2008, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Labor. Mulpuri said dynamic technologies could position U.S.-made glass as a key player in the green construction sector.

The new window systems can be pitched as money-savers particularly for their ability to control a building’s “thermal envelope” where heat seeps in and out. Further, real estate is increasingly valued by its environmental impact, and developers can get higher rents and sale prices with green features like energy-efficient glass.

“[Glass] is kind of taken for granted because people see right through it,” Mulpuri said. “Products like this [dynamic technology] … move the glass in the window up the value chain” for project developers.

Cooling, heating and lighting account for about 36 percent of overall energy consumption in buildings, according to the U.S. EPA. Windows are among the biggest contributor to these costs by allowing unwanted heat to slip in or out.

Soladigm says its “electrochromic” window systems can reduce peak power usage by 30 percent in commercial buildings, as well as slash heating, ventilation and air conditioning usage by 25 percent.

Energy savings from dynamic glass can also help cut the carbon footprint of buildings, which are responsible for almost half of the nation’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Is Dynamic Glass the Future?

John Van Dine, CEO and president of glass manufacturer Sage Electrochromics, said that dynamic glass is gaining increasing acceptance among architects and building owners, who typically have been hesitant to adopt cutting-edge technologies.

“The industry is really now starting to realize that glass is energy inefficient … and that something needs to be done about that,” he told SolveClimate News.

Van Dine noted that Sage works with U.S. manufacturers along the entire window supply chain, from makers of raw glass to sealants and coating materials. These businesses, he said, could also see gains from increased production of dynamic glass.

For the last four years, the 22-year-old cleantech firm from Faribault, Minn., has been the only company to use its electrochromic dynamic glass, known as SageGlass, in actual building projects.

Its most recent work includes part of a $3.8 million project for TD Bank in Miami, which began preliminary construction on July 11, and is modeled after Apple’s glass cube-shaped store on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Sage recently received an $80 million investment from France’s Saint-Gobain, the world’s second-largest glassmaker, which will help Sage build a larger $125 million facility near its existing plant in Faribault. The facility will employ up to 200 people when it comes online in late 2012.

Van Dine said the company is also providing SageGlass to an undisclosed building managed by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). The independent government agency requires all new  construction projects at federal building to achieve gold certification, the second-highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

In 2009, the Obama administration awarded the GSA $5.5 billion in stimulus funding to convert federal buildings to high-performance green buildings. The president in Febuary launched the Better Buildings Initiative, which aims to increase the energy efficiency of commercial buildings by 20 percent in 2020. 

McCutcheon of Lux Research noted that government funding for federal buildings had already stimulated the market enough so that the cost of achieving the minimal level of sustainability is about the same as a traditional design.

“There is almost no price premium” for builders at the less-stringent certification levels of the LEED program, he said.

Yet, Costs Still Too High

However, McCutcheon said that for dynamic glass for to become an everyday reality in green architecture per-unit pricing would have to plummet. Until that happens, traditional glass products made by industry leaders like Michigan’s Guardian Industries — which has nearly 40 plants abroad — will continue to dominate construction projects.

“The costs are still much too high to achieve widespread penetration,” he said. “Until the cost drops, [dynamic glass] is really at the margin of incumbent products,” such as double- or triple-pane windows.

Currently, non-dynamic technologies like “low-emissivity” coatings can be used to reinforce heat-leaking traditional windows at a cost of under $4 per square foot, though energy-efficiency savings are marginal compared to those from dynamic glass.

In the dynamic glass family, thermochromic filters, which darken in response to heat, not UV rays, cost about $15 per square foot. West Olive, Mich.-based Pleotint, the leader in this space, started commercial production last fall at a new Michigan facility with a 2 million-square-foot annual capacity.

More expensive are the electrochromic technologies of Soladigm and Sage. These require electricity to turn glass opaque and cost about $50 per square foot, McCutcheon said, though Sage says its products’ prices are expected to drop once production picks up at the new Minnesota facility.