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After reading the New York Times article, “Silicon Valley Starts to Turn Its Face to the Sun” this weekend, you’d think that solar was some new stealthy phenomenon that’s just beginning to emerge from underground labs in Northern California and venture capital meeting rooms down in the Valley. No mention of leading solar industries in Japan or Germany or China, which is set to become the world’s largest solar manufacturer this year.
It’s true that the next disruptive solar technology will likely emerge from the Valley. As our analyst buddy Nathaniel Bullard from New Energy Finance tells us, the great bulk of solar VC investment takes place in the Valley, and potential disruptors such as Nanosolar and Miasole are there, too. But it’s far more complicated than that.
When it comes to a mature solar industry, Silicon Valley is in far less of a leadership position, Bullard explains. New Energy Finance tracks 43 leading solar companies, and only one — SunPower — is in the Valley. And among the major listed companies in the U.S., First Solar is in Arizona, Evergreen is in Massachusetts, and United Solar Ovonics is in Michigan. Also one of the most heavily venture-backed, HelioVolt, is in Texas.
Of course mainstream media articles can’t account for all the details, but this one misses the background. It also overlooks the Valley’s real strength for solar. The NYT’s article says: “So what does the Valley bring to the mix? Expertise in miniaturization and a passion for novelty among its entrepreneurs.”
Hmmm, I wouldn’t describe the Valley’s enthusiasm for new stuff as the main reason why it’s important for the solar industry. Solar breakthroughs are being developed all over the world, but the Valley can offer what it does for most new technologies: the startup ecosystem and financing via Sand Hill Road, major universities and business plan competitions.
The “passion for novelty” in the solar industry is actually coming from all over the place, and moving to the Valley mainly for the availability of dollars. As the article mentions, Khosla Ventures-backed Ausra originally hails from Australia. They came to the Valley for VC funding and the ability to implement their solar thermal technology with progressive California laws and utilities. Israeli solar thermal company Solel has a presence in California for similar reasons.
As Joseph Romm points out over on Climate Progress, the article also fails to address the underlying macro moves toward solar, including “the need to price carbon dioxide emissions to fight global warming and, uhh, record high energy prices that will no doubt be even higher in a decade.” Yeah, who needs to think about global trends, the sun only shines on the Valley right?
The article does draw interesting parallels between the computing industry and solar, i.e. via Moore’s Law. But Silicon Valley can’t quite claim solar as its own the way it can computing.