Dr. Joseph Laia ’80, ’83, ’86 Making Solar Attractive to the US Market

Dr. Joseph LaiaIt distresses Dr. Laia to admit, but it’s true: U.S. utility companies are solidly behind the curve in using solar and other renewable power.

Our country consumes 25% of the energy on the planet, so “it’s just wrong” that we’re not embracing renewable energy as quickly as Europe, said Dr. Laia. “The reason this is happening is because, politically, Europe can do it.”

Countries such as Spain and Germany have tariffs that guarantee renewable energy producers a certain price over a set number of years for their product – and that price is much higher than they get here in the US. So, Dr. Laia and his team at MiaSole tapped into the one resource America has an abundance of to help solve that competitive disadvantage: ingenuity.

MiaSole is a venture-backed solar photovoltaic company in California that offers a combination of CIGS thin films and proprietary manufacturing processes to produce solar products in volumes and at cost points that may finally make the U.S. market sit up and take notice.

At the company’s Santa Clara factory, a roll of steel miles long and yet only about half the thickness of a strand of hair is fed into a 75-foot long machine and emerges 30 minutes later as a finished multilayer solar panel. This process is much faster and requires much lower capital equipment and labor costs than other methods.

The company was founded in 2002, but it was still in the research and development weeds when Dr. Laia arrived in 2007. By October, 2009 the company began shipping their products to half a dozen customers around the world. The factory is now ramping up capacity and Dr. Laia is searching for sites for a second factory. “This year we shipped panels to Chevron, our first commercial customer in California, and we will continue to ship products to customers here in the U.S.,” said Dr. Laia.

Dr. Laia joined MiaSole from KLA-Tencor Corporation, the world’s leading supplier of process control and yield management solutions for the semiconductor and related microelectronics industries. He was the company’s group vice president of Metrology responsible for all of KLA’s 8-wafer metrology businesses. He also spent eleven years in technical and program leadership roles at Los Alamos National Laboratories.

After working in the private and public sectors as well as academia, Dr. Laia has enthusiastically thrown his hat into the private sector. “A fancy degree shouldn’t be a burden; it should be an enabler to do whatever you want to do.”

Another interest of Dr. Laia’s is “being a good alumnus” of Stony Brook University. (He earned his BS in Chemistry in ’80, his MS in Materials Science in ’83, and his PhD in Materials Science in ’86.) To that end, MiaSole is donating 20kW of solar panels for Stony Brook’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (AERTC) scheduled to open this summer.

The AERTC is a partnership of academic and research institutions, energy providers, and industrial corporations. Its mission is to become a global leader in energy research, education, and technology, with a focus on efficiency, conservation, renewable energy, and nanotechnology applications for new and novel sources of energy.

Dr. Laia also agreed to visit the campus last fall and speak at Stony Brook’s annual Energy Conference, addressing the topic of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources such as solar.

“Of all the energy produced on the planet,” said Dr.Laia, “oil and coal represent about 35% and renewable energy represents just .5% – and only .02% is from solar. So you have this huge energy market and practically none of it is renewable. If you care about climate change and leaving behind a cleaner, more secure world for our kids, that kind of energy distribution is a real problem.”

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