What is the secret sauce behind Miasole, the maker of copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar modules?
The heart of the company's technology is a large, hexagonal manufacturing machine festooned with valves and rollers that looks like a cross between a particle accelerator and a prop from a science fiction movie. A miles-long metal foil sheet goes in one end, gets turned 90 degrees so that it's vertical and in succession it gets coated with molybendium, cadmium, indium, selenide and other materials at different stages.
It is like watching a multimillion dollar spin art machine.
While solar cells are semiconductors, and many of the processes for making solar cells are similar to those used in chipmaking, the tour reminded me once again that the two industries share distinct characteristics.
1. Moore's Law Doesn't Exactly Map to Solar. Moore's Law -- the observation by Intel
Unfortunately, it also doesn't translate well beyond computer chips. Why? Moore's Law is all about getting small. Transistors exist to ferry electrons from point A to point B. Thus, smaller transistors meant better performance. They also meant lower costs because more chips could be popped out of the same finite-sized wafer. Alternatively, designers could add more transistors to a single chip too to give it more oomph.
But "smaller, cheaper, better" doesn't work everywhere. If the car industry followed Moore's Law, a Rolls Royce would cost less than a dollar and be as fast as a plane. However, it would also be only a few millimeters high and could barely fit fleas. In fact, not everything about the dictum works in chips: Moore predicted silicon wafers that would be six feet in diameter by now. They measure 300 millimeters. (In 2003, Moore told me in a casual interview that Moore's Law has continued in part because we "got lucky" with silicon and the way its crystalline structure works.)
Shrinkage with solar doesn't work well. Shrinking a solar cell reduces the surface area exposed to the sun, which directly reduces the amount of power they can generate. Smaller is the enemy of better.
"This is not the chip industry. The rate of changes is completely different," said Laia. "I don't have Moore's Law ... I don't have shrink."
2. It's about Process, not Products. Although modules might be ornate devices, the fact that they all perform similar functions means that they will ultimately get bought, sold, and priced as commodities. Thus, the intellectual property doesn't reside in the cells or modules -- it relies in the manufacturing equipment and processes, according to Laia. Miasole designs its cell manufacturing hardware itself.
"We make our own coaters," he said. "Between your design and the variety of equipment makers, Intel can differentiate its process from Samsung and TSMC. Their factories can sing and dance at different levels."
Miasole has 105 patent and patent applications and 50 more coming soon. The company's goal is to file around 100 applications a year.
It is the opposite in semiconductors. Chip makers gave up producing their own equipment years ago.
The "process or product" debate on equipment in solar is contentious. The first generation of CIGS manufacturers -- Solyndra, Miasole, Nanosolar, HelioVolt, SoloPower -- spent hundreds of millions on creating their own equipment. Effectively, they had to become Applied Material to serve a single, captive customer, themselves.
AQT Technologies built a 15-megawatt CIGS facility for under $15 million with second-hand parts from the disk industry. Telio Solar and NuvoSun are trying something similar.
Then again, look at the SunFab debacle at Applied Materials. It sold similar equipment sets to Signet Solar, Masdar PV and others. The experiment is now winding down.
"The only differentiator is the cost of electricity and maybe water or labor" among solar manufacturers with the same equipment, asserts Laia.
"Process is indeed everything," writes Travis Bradford of the Prometheus Institute. "Process-tech will determine if you have cheap enough but still profitable selling prices and can continue to deliver those in an ever-falling price market."
Whether this is sustainable remains to be seen.
3. Diversity. Or lack thereof. The chip industry started by producing transistors and then integrated circuits. Since then, semiconductor designers have fashioned basic building into a processors, signal processors, amplifiers, FPGAs, converters, actuators, sensors, accelerometers, and a whole range of memory devices.
Solar companies likely won't achieve that sort of diversity. Solar cells and modules ultimately do one thing: convert light into electricity. Different manufacturers will conjure up different types of modules optimized for flexibility, weight, or different light conditions, but all of them will essentially perform the same task.
In that light, solar ultimately might become like the PCs, a functional tool that can be sold independently, or integrated into other devices. That's a great future, but the solar industry may not be able to support as many independent manufacturers. Count the number of chip makers and the number of PC makers.
1. Cost Cuts by Any Means Necessary. Shrinkage the only driver in the chip industry: Flash memory performance and price declines occurred twice as fast as normal during the last decade because of structural changes in how chipmakers introduced new lines of flash. The rise of chip makers in South Korea, Taiwan, and China accelerated price declines in unanticipated ways.
The same takes place in solar, moving from $300 per watt in 1956, to $50 per watt in the 1970s, to $10 per watt in the 1990s, to under $2 per watt today through cell improvements, but also changes in silicon demand, racking, and other aspects of installation.
Even unglamorous things like packaging will be a big deal. Miasole wraps its cells in Lego-like packages that cut the cost of module assembly.
The price decline achieved through these means allows the industry to achieve a rough approximate of Moore's Law, according to SunPower
2. A Social Set. Why will solar leave wind, solar, biofuels, fuel cells and most other segments of the green industry in the dust? The sheer number of people flowing into the industry give it a collective intelligence that will be difficult to stop. Thousands work in the industry and it has expanded from a base in Japan and Europe to encompass the U.S. China and India. You even see the same confrontational chucklehead personality so familiar in the chip industry in solar now. Half of the solar execs these days, after all, came from there.
Intellectual heft can also determine intra-industry debates. Germanium chips provided better performance but were relegated to the sidelines. Hard drives inevitably will lose ground to solid state flash memory. Never bet against silicon. Does this mean thin film is dead? The circumstances aren't completely parallel: in chips, silicon was cheaper than germanium, while some types of thin film are cheaper than silicon. But it bears watching.
3. A Horizontal Horizon. In the middle of the last decade, many solar manufacturers thought the future lay in creating vertically integrated companies that managed every step of production. The ultimate case was OptiSolar, which wanted to perform every task from making silicon to managing power plants.
Don't expect to see that movie again.
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