SEMICON WEST REPORT: Keynotes tap into promises, challenges of solar

by Phil LoPiccolo, Editor-in-Chief, Solid State Technology

A pair of Wednesday keynotes at SEMICON West described opportunities for semiconductor suppliers in the solar energy market, but cautioned that there are fundamentally different manufacturing requirements in the two industries.

Solar energy accounts for a paltry 1/30th of 1% of total annual electricity consumption in the US, and currently lags far behind the global leaders in total solar power produced annually (Germany >50%, Japan ~25%, US 9%), noted Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. But the US has the best “resources” of any developed country in terms of amount and intensity of available sunlight, he noted, and is keen to find independent energy sources. Plus the federal government is stepping in with a more aggressive promotion of solar energy, and enacting policies to help jumpstart industry efforts to reduce costs.

Taking all these factors into account, Resch projects US solar demand will ride an 83% CAGR through 2010. And that’s a tremendous opportunity for semiconductor suppliers to provide first-, second-, and third-generation equipment to help the solar industry maintain that pace, he said.

For those hoping to tap into the nascent solar growth, T.J. Rodgers, chairman of SunPower Corp and president/CEO of Cypress Semiconductor (from which SunPower was spun out in 2002), emphasized in a separate keynote the vast differences between how silicon plants for solar and semiconductor fabs operate. While solar cell plants are far less stringent in terms of individual processes (e.g., lithography diffusion, etching, metallization, etc.) than present-day semiconductor fabs, he explained, they also need equipment that’s more reliable in a high-throughput, 24/7 environment (minimum ~99.8% uptime) and is 10x cheaper and faster — i.e., tools that cost, say, $400k instead of $4M, and achieve 800 wafers/hr throughput, not 80 wafers/hr. Solar fabs also run a more continuous-flow manufacturing setup than a semiconductor fab, and process a lot more silicon, he noted.

As an example, Rodgers pointed to SunPower’s “mega-monster fab” in the Philippines, which boasts output capability of 100M watts/year, or about 32M wafers/year, vs. a large semiconductor plant that may produce about 1M wafers/year, he said. The site also consumes about 15 tons of silicon per week, which is nearly 800 tons per year. — P.L.

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