Solar and Semiconductor Industries Come Together In San Francisco

The solar industry and semiconductor industry are intimately connected. Both industries rely on silicon and both use much of the same processing technology and supply chain to produce their products. Nowhere has this connection been more prominently on display than last week at the Moscone Center in San Francisco California, where the Intersolar North America made its debut in conjunction with SEMICON West 2008.

According to Solar Promotion International GmbH, the group that organized Intersolar, 13,000 visitors came to the show to visit the trade show’s 210 exhibitors. The show provided an opportunity for those in the two industries to connect and allowed those companies that work in both spaces to showcase their collective efforts. According to Chris O’Brien, Head of Market Development and Government Relations for North America for Oerlikon Solar, holding the two conferences together gave companies greater exposure and showed the promise of the U.S. solar market.

“Oerlikon has been participating in the SEMICON show for many years through our other business segments, so it’s a natural fit for us to participate in the solar portion of the show as well. Other companies are in the same boat and I’ve also been impressed with the number of companies coming in from overseas. I think that’s an indicator of the strong interest in the U.S. market. Not withstanding the uncertainty about the investment tax credit, there remains a widespread sense of optimism about the viability and growth potential of the U.S. market,” O’Brien said.

Pete Singer, editor of semiconductor industry publication Solid State Technology (SST), has been covering the semiconductor industry for more than 25 years. He said that the two industries are not only related but can learn from one another both on the materials side and the facility management side as well.

“It’s very exciting to have Intersolar this year because photovoltaics is really taking off as much as it is and there’s such a close relationship between the solar industry and the semiconductor industry with both using silicon and both using material science.” Singer said. “There are something like 600 process steps to manufacturing an advanced integrated circuit, solar cells are much simpler. But what they’ve learned on the IC [integrated circuits] manufacturing side is how to maximize those materials, work with difference band gap materials and really improve reliability. And I think that is where the solar cell manufacturing guys can use some help.”

The current unprecedented level of growth in the solar industry mirrors the growth curve that occurred in the semiconductor industry according to John Wallace, CEO of Xantrex Technology. He said that this is another area where the solar industry can learn from the semiconductor industry.

“The semiconductor industry also grew very rapidly in its youth and it’s also very fundamental to many other industries and I think that solar industry can learn a lot from the semiconductor industry not only in terms of technology but in terms of how to run a fast growing business,” Wallace said.

In recent months a number of traditional semiconductor companies including Intel and National Semiconductor have made announcements that they are making plans to enter the solar industry in one way or another. Intel spun off its solar research area into a new solar company called SpectraWatt. National Semiconductor announced that it will be introducing its first solar product, SolarMagic, that could raise the efficiency of residential and industrial solar systems.

Kevin Kayser, Senior Marketing Manager at National said that the product will be targeted at installers and integrators and much planning went into the company’s decision to enter the solar space.

“Photovoltaics currently has less than 1% of the energy market, but we think it has potentially one of the fastest growth rates of any alternative energy source. Now certainly we’re looking at wind, we’re looking geothermal, we’re looking at other sources, but from an electronics point of view we saw that we had the most immediate potential impact in solar photovoltaics,” Kayser said.

Other companies at Intersolar, like Spire Corporation were largely involved in the semiconductor industry before the explosive growth in the solar market over the last few years and are now being re-introduced to that industry via the solar industry and are looking to semiconductor companies to help push solar forward.

“Many years ago we were heavily into semiconductor technology and machines and we were Semi members. Currently, we are coming back to Semi by way of Intersolar,” said Roger Little, CEO of Spire. “Right now, our emphasis and our energy is in solar so that’s where our focus is and if semi can play a role we’re willing to work with them.

Singer said that the trend of IC manufacturers making forays into the solar industry is not likely to end any time soon but that the results of that trend remain to be seen.

“Over the next few years, we’ll see a big move in that direction. It’s unclear right now how effective that will be, if they can in fact play in that space or if the existing start-ups in the solar field that have been at it for a long time really know how to do it better than the IC manufacturing guys,” Singer said.

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Former Editor at, now Assistant Counsel at the New York State Department of Public Service, regulating New York's electricity, gas, and telecommunications industries.

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