Posts Tagged ‘Applied Materials’

The idea that green is the new tech was brought home this week in San Francisco when one of the chip industry’s biggest trade shows, SEMICON West, was held in conjunction with a huge solar trade show, Intersolar North America. The geeks and the eco-freaks together under one roof.

Not surprising, really. It has been oft-observed that much of the solar cell industry today is essentially an offshoot of the chip biz; both use  the same basic building blocks – silicon – and common manufacturing processes. Cypress Semiconductor saw that early on and has profited greatly from an acquisition that has eclipsed its chip business, solar module maker SunPower (SPWR).

Almost two years ago, Applied Materials (AMAT), the world’s biggest manufacturer of the machines that make computer chips, jumped into the solar business. It reconfigured  equipment used to produce flat-screen televisions and displays to print thin-film solar cells on the same plates. (Thin-film technologies vary, but essentially solar cells are printed or layered on sheets of glass or flexible materials.)

Applied has sold $3 billion worth of contracts for a dozen solar-cell factories that will be able to crank out 1.5 gigawatts’ worth of modules a year by the end of 2010, said Applied chief technology officer Mark Pinto at a lunch Green Wombat attended on Wednesday at Intersolar. To get an idea of just how hot solar is, consider this: Pinto estimates that in just two years solar will bring in 20 to 30 percent of Applied’s revenues.

“Energy generation has been void of technological development for 50 years and that makes it ripe for change,” said Applied CEO Mike Splinter. “It’s all about engineering and the environment.”

For photovolatics, it’s all about getting the costs per watt down to compete against fossil fuels. Part of that involves improving the efficiency of solar cells, but it’s just as much about reducing manufacturing and installation costs.

To that end, Applied was showing off its latest product (or to be exact, the product made by its machines): Out on a deck at the Metreon center across from the San Francisco convention hall sat a supersized thin-film solar panel measuring 5.7 square meters (7.2 feet by 7.5 feet) that is but an inch or so thick. The panels, which produce about 500 watts each, are designed for solar farms. The large size means that a 10-megawatt solar power plant would require 20,000 Applied panels versus 150,000 conventional-sized panels, cutting overall costs by 17 percent, the company claims. Installation costs fall dramatically as the panels attach to mounting racks with just two screws and plug into the circuit with two wires.

“We think the cost to produce and install is less than the average cost of electricity in California,” said Pinto.

Thin-film panels like the one in the photo above cost less to make than conventional bulky solar modules, but they are much less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity  – around 6 percent versus 20 percent. However, they tend to work well in diffuse sunlight – i.e. foggy San Francisco – and can be integrated into building facades. The panels could also be made semi-transparent and transformed into electricity-generating windows for skycrapers.

Don’t expect Applied’s booming solar business to translate into a lot of green collar jobs in the United States. So far, it has not sold one solar cell factory here. Europe’s solar tax incentives have made it the market for Applied, with Asia set to become another big play in the coming the years. At home, meanwhile, the looming expiration of a crucial investment tax credit for renewable energy is discouraging expansion of the solar economy.

That doesn’t mean that demand has slowed. Southern California Edison (EIX), for instance, this year announced plans to install 250-megawatts of solar arrays on warehouse rooftops in the Southland. (This week it awarded the project’s first contract to thin-film company First Solar (FSLR) to build a 2-megawatt array in the sun-baked city of Fontana.)

But given that there’s only one thin-film factory currently in commercial operation in the United States – First Solar’s – the panels for Edison’s project and others will be coming from overseas. It makes no economic or environmental sense, of course, to ship huge pieces of glass across the ocean to California. (CORRECTION: As a couple of readers have pointed out, Energy Conversion Devices of Michigan operates a thin-film factory in the U.S.) But as Splinter put it about the lack of a coherent U.S. renewable energy policy and the investment tax credit mess, “This is the biggest miss in a long, long time.”

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