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  • It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2008
Taking its deep pockets and manufacturing expertise with it, the semiconductor industry jumps on the solar bandwagon.

The semiconductor industry knows a good thing when it sees it and is jumping on the solar bandwagon big time.

Remember the mid-1980s and 1990s when Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM and National Semiconductor were forces to be reckoned with during the oh-so-hot age of the personal computer? Now fast forward to today, and you’ll find these former computer behemoths turning their sights on the burgeoning solar energy market.

Evidence of the course change abounds as the semiconductor giants license, acquire and merge their way into the solar arena.


This rooftop solar electric system was installed by SunPower, a company that spun off from semiconductor giant Cypress Semiconductor 20 years ago. Photo by SunPower.

For example:

Hewlett-Packard Development Co. LP, of Palo Alto, Calif., is licensing its transistor technology to Xtreme Energetics Inc., a solar company from Livermore, Calif. The solar design uses HP’s transparent electronics, developed with Oregon State University in Corvallis, which take an optical approach to track and focus the light. Intel Corp., of Santa Clara, Calif., recently spun off SpectraWatt Inc., which will manufacture crystalline silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) cells, focusing on improving current manufacturing processes to reduce costs.

Fighting off shade

IBM, of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., has teamed with photolithographic materials maker Tokyo Ohka Kogyo Co. Ltd. to develop copper indium gallium selenide solar cells. National Semiconductor Corp., also of Santa Clara, introduced SolarMagic, a device that works alongside an array of PV cells, redistributing power when shading and other adverse conditions limit energy production in any area of the array.

Actually, semiconductor companies have been creeping into the solar market for some time. In 1985, Cypress Semiconductor Corp. of San Jose, Calif., spun off subsidiary SunPower Corp., now a leader in the crystalline silicon solar market. Intel’s entrée into the market is in keeping with its commitment to the environment, exemplified by its goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2010. The company also recently released lead- and halogen-free microprocessors.

According to David O’Connor, vice president of business development at SpectraWatt, a close correlation to the technical skill set exists in developing computer semiconductors and solar cells. Electronics manufacturers and integrated circuit designers have the experience needed in the solar industry, but as a business, they also have experience in high-volume global manufacturing, a necessity in today’s energy market.

Photovoltaic panels provide power at Aspen Mountain ski resort, high in the Rockies. Photo courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company.

For National Semiconductor, the energy market is nothing new, according to Ralf Muenster, strategic market development director. The company has been “energy efficiency cognizant for a number of years,” he said, noting that its PowerWise brand of semiconductors offers a high ratio of energy efficiency-to-performance. National’s new SolarMagic technology applies this expertise to photovoltaic panels. When panels are shaded or dirty, the impact on a photovoltaic array has a greater influence on the electrical harvest than does the actual footprint of the shadow. Shading just a few cells will drop the module’s output to less than half.

SolarMagic is installed in parallel with photovoltaic cells. It constantly monitors and maximizes the energy harvest of every panel and combines sophisticated power management, analog circuitry and some intelligence. When it detects a change in a panel, it adjusts that panel to its maximum output while optimizing the power flow through the installation.

A $20 billion market

These chip makers are jumping into a market estimated at $20 billion last year and still on the rise. That is smart yet conservative investing, according to Michael LoCascio, senior analyst at Lux Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. “These people have long experience in silicon, and that expertise will help boost efficiencies and keep costs down.” He noted that large corporations with deep pockets and semiconductor skills transfer very well to solar, but that the real drive is to reduce the costs per watt. A recent Lux Research report noted the growing price pressure throughout the value chain in the solar market.

“Solar is not self-sufficient without considerable government assistance,” LoCascio said. So while these newcomers may be late to the party, they will have a lot to offer if they can lend their expertise to raising efficiency while lowering costs.

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