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Summary:

Solar panels are growing more efficient each year, but certain external factors continue to keep them from being as efficient as they could: They get dusty. Trees or adjacent buildings can cause shade and block sunlight. Leaves and other debris can stain the panels. Even mismatching […]

Solar panels are growing more efficient each year, but certain external factors continue to keep them from being as efficient as they could: They get dusty. Trees or adjacent buildings can cause shade and block sunlight. Leaves and other debris can stain the panels. Even mismatching the panels can pose a problem.

National Semiconductor (NSM), a chip maker traditionally more at home in markets for wireless handsets and industrial and testing equipment, sees in these problems an opportunity to expand into the growing photovoltaic industry. The company formally introduced on Monday a technology called SolarMagic, which it claims can recoup as much as 50 percent of solar systems’ output lost due to shade and debris. (CEO Brian Halla indicated in May such a technology would be coming.)

In a FAQ explaining the technology, the company said:

Today’s systems are limited by the weakest link, and one or two compromised panels can take down the entire string or array. This is somewhat similar to a section of Christmas lights that go out when one light fails. However, with SolarMagic technology, if one panel in a solar installation is shaded, dirty, or otherwise compromised, that panel is allowed to produce what little energy it can while the other panels continue to operate at their full potential.


National Semi is pitching the technology to solar installers first, with hopes of reaching out to manufacturers later. One installer, California-based REgrid Power, said in a release from National Semi that SolarMagic improved energy output in shaded systems by 44 percent and by 12 percent overall.

This isn’t National Semi first push into energy efficiency; in May the company announced an initiative aimed at helping companies save on energy costs through systems that generate less heat and rely on longer-lived batteries. And it’s not alone among chip companies moving into the solar industry. Others who have already planted flags there include Cypress Semiconductor which created SunPower, IBM is working on a JV to make thin film solar, Intel spun out and funded a solar startup called SpectraWatt earlier this month, and Applied Materials has been buying its way into the solar equipment market for months.

Despite not being the first into the solar market, National Semi has a good deal of experience in improving the efficiency of industrial and other systems, which could make it a formidable presence in solar some day.

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By Kevin Kelleher

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