As tech giants rush into the solar cell business, their competition promises to bring down the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels used to generate electricity. PV modules use silicon cells, which are also used in computer chips. But with the traditional chip business growing at only 5% annually, tech companies are looking for a new market niche to grow.
This is good news for the solar industry, where cost has been a barrier to wider acceptance. Thus far, technology improvements have lowered solar PV costs only marginally, with each improvement coming at a large research cost. Fierce competition on the part of the largest tech companies could change that. According to Paul Davidson in USA TODAY:
“Since May, computer powerhouses Intel (INTC), IBM (IBM) and National Semiconductor (NSM) have barreled into solar energy, joining hundreds of fellow technology mainstays. Virtually every chipmaker is weighing a solar play, says Rhone Resch, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association. ‘We have a classic Silicon Valley land rush,’ says T.J. Rodgers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor (CY), which owns 56% of SunPower. Drawing the stalwarts is solar’s 40% annual growth, says Gartner analyst Jim Hines.”
The savings will come largely in the area of automating manufacturing. How then, will the solar industry deal with the shortage of silicon? Semiconductor International rather mysteriously predicts that supplies of silicon will increase next year. Along with the shift to solar thin film technology, which uses little or no silicon, this may mean that mass-market adaptation is within reach.
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