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Silicon Valley shines in US solar tech industry

Posted: 18 Sep 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Silicon Valley  renewable energy  semiconductor industry  solar power 

When it comes to the emerging U.S. solar technology industry, there's no contest: Silicon Valley shines the brightest.

"It's in the midst of the revolution," according to Gartner analyst Al Velosa.

The valley isn't the only tech centre in the country working on the renewable energy source. But it has a potent mix of strengths that look good to analysts: California's overall enthusiasm for solar, public utility support, semiconductor industry veterans now working in the solar space, and high-energy start-ups.

"What makes the valley more interesting is that the wave of emerging start-ups are pioneering techniques that will help take solar power to the point of being competitive with regular electricity," Velosa said. "This is the where the real excitement and potential in Silicon Valley is."

That's just what SolarTech, a local organisation dedicated to removing business barriers to the technology, wants to hear. Its 40 members include companies, utilities, and the city of San Jose.

Two years in the making, SolarTech was formally established in August. It's an initiative of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a government/business public policy organisation focusing on the area's economic health and quality of life.

Members include SunPower, Chevron Energy Services, Applied Materials and Underwriters Laboratories, along with SunEdison, North America's largest solar energy provider, and Pacific Gas and Electric.

The organisation hopes to add regional governments to its membership roster, said Doug Payne, who directs the group's business operations. Payne also manages commercial business development for REGrid Power, which designs and installs residential and commercial solar electric systems in the area.

There are big challenges in solar technology business processes, according to Payne.

Financing is one. The paperwork is not streamlined, and there's a lot of it. The building permit process—residential and commercia—is inconsistent. Getting permits can be done over-the-counter, or can take several weeks. "It's an extremely unpredictable process," Payne said.

In addition, governmental jurisdictions use different versions of the National Electrical Code. "That contributes to a tremendous amount of inefficiency," Payne said. "It-s a fundamental barrier to growth."

In spite of these roadblocks, SolarTech's vision is a 15 per cent to 18 per cent annual total reduction in solar installation cycle time and processes every year for the next five years.

The group also hopes to see expansion with the Energy Department's Solar America Initiative over the next three to five years. That initiative has designated 25 "Solar America Cities", which have committed to accelerating local adoption of solar technologies.

Solar tech is part of a larger scheme in San Jose: the Green Vision. Adopted in 2007, the Green Vision is a 15-year plan to transform the city into a world centre of clean technology innovation.

Green Vision's goals include creating 25,000 cleantech jobs, reducing per capita energy use by 50 per cent, obtaining all electrical power from clean and renewable energy sources, and building or retrofitting 5 crore (50 million) square feet of green buildings.

"We're one of the few communities that completely links environmental and economic goals," said Collin O'Mara, who has the title of clean tech strategist for the city.

Underwriters Labs has a major role in solar tech development in Silicon Valley. In July, UL opened a commercially focused photovoltaic testing and certification facility, the largest in North America, in San Jose.

The 20,000 square-foot complex, with 14 test chambers and two solar simulators, has indoor and outdoor testing capabilities to evaluate PV modules and panels. The goal is to enable solar products to get to market faster, said Bill Colavecchio, vice-president and general manager of UL-s Global Industrial Products Center.

PV will be competitive with traditional fuels for electricity generation in the next five to ten years, according to Colavecchio. And Silicon Valley will continue to be an innovator in the growing marketplace, he said.

"Silicon Valley will be one of the critical global leaders that will ultimately make PV mainstream," Colavecchio said.

But not everyone sees a completely sunny solar future. Cost is a serious issue, according to Gartner's Velosa. "The industry needs to get a lot cheaper," he said.

Washington could be more enthusiastic in promoting solar tech, Velosa added. "The U.S. government will support drilling through tax rebates, but they won't fund a new industry through investment tax credits," Velosa said. "That new industry, solar technology, would help drive both American jobs and U.S. competitiveness."

- Sheila Riley
EE Times

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