Intel Tiptoes into Solar

Intel wants to get into solar, but it doesn’t want to take any risks.

So it’s doing the next best thing, becoming a solar consultant.

That’s the heart of Intel’s recent agreement with MiaSole, which makes thin-film CIGS cells. What Intel is offering is its manufacturing expertise, nothing more.

Intel calls its manufacturing technology Copy Exactly and it’s designed to improve yield. By getting this technology with MiaSole’s factory the hope is that MiaSole can increase its own yield, which means lower costs, which means more competitive prices.

MiaSole won’t say it, but its manufacturing plant will now have Intel Inside. That should help it attract capital, buzz, and headlines. The question is whether it will bring in any orders.

Only if Intel can deliver on its promises.

MiaSole is just one of many companies that have made the area around the East Bay home in the last several years. They’re taking advantage of California’s generous incentives for renewable energy installations, but they’re also aiming to use the Valley’s technology base. MiaSole is based in Santa Clara. Many of its rivals are in the East Bay, less than an hour away by freeway but cheaper in terms of land and office rents.

On a recent trip west I had a chance to pass many of these companies along I-880. Outfits like Solaria and Solyndra are giving the suburbs south of Oakland the same look (and the same traffic jams) towns like Cupertino and Santa Clara attained 20 years ago. Short glass buildings, logos shining in the Sun.

But all this could come crashing if these guys can’t scale. And this is where old-line companies like Intel and Applied Materials come in. AMAT failed in its thin-film effort, Sunfab, and while it still has plays in the solar panel space, it’s a road Intel does not want to go down.

So it’s dipping a toe in the water, doing what it knows it can do, focusing on process engineering and increased yields.

It’s a start, in other words. Only a start. But in time it could prove more important than any big oil company investment ever was. Because what the solar industry needs right now isn’t capital, but knowledge.

 

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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