3M Amps Up R&D to Supply Renewable Energy Industry

3mUpdated with comment from 3M: What 3M did for sticky notes, it now wants to do for efficiency-boosting add-ons for buildings, photovoltaics, and wind turbines: make them ubiquitous and profitable. The Minnesota-based manufacturer announced today that it has created a division in which it will develop and adapt products for the renewable energy industry. With a focus on energy management tools and components for solar, wind, geothermal and biofuel generation, the new unit is being launched just a week after 3M cut its 2009 earnings forecast — and about three months later than initially planned.

In early September, as the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal noted, 3M CEO George Buckley told investors that the company aimed to create a unit the following month targeting wind and solar markets. At the time, Buckley called the solar market “just a quite massive opportunity for 3M,” citing a forecast that it would grow to $50 billion in 2012, up from $20 billion in 2008.

This is far from 3M’s first foray into the renewable energy industry; the company has been making tapes, coatings and adhesives, among other things, for solar panels and wind turbines for years. But like everyone else, the company big has been hit hard by the global economic downturn (overall profit plunged 37 percent last quarter). As pressure increases across 3M’s business segments (nowhere more than in consumer electronics), today’s announcement reflects relative strength in alternative energy markets — and the new opportunities that are expected to arise as a result of the economic stimulus package. In addition to products for energy generation, 3M’s renewables division will also work on tools for boosting energy efficiency and conservation in buildings (window films, for example) — a sector slated to get billions of dollars in federal funding as part of President Obama’s plan.

Update: Despite company-wide efforts to cut costs this year, 3M tells us that it will increase investment in products for the renewable energy industry through this new division, whose guiding objective will be to drive down the cost per watt of renewable energy. Tracy Anderson, business director for the unit’s energy-generation segment, would not get into specifics, but he said 3M will likely submit technology from the new division in competitive bids for federal grants. “The company has a long history of working with the Department of Energy,” he said. “We will be partnering with the Department of Energy where it makes sense.”

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