When politicians lace their campaign speeches with “green jobs” jargon, many point to the potential of the solar industry to offer manufacturing and installation jobs. But to be the leader of a cutting edge solar company, there’s one major qualification that keeps popping up: a history in the semiconductor industry.
Several events in the solar industry in recent weeks have reminded me just how valuable executives with chip chops are to the solar biz. They can bring decades of knowledge of low cost chip manufacturing that can directly translate to the solar industry, as well as experience working with suppliers of silicon itself.
First off, as I pored over thin film solar tube maker Solyndra’s S-1 on Sunday, I kept coming across the company’s mentions of the importance of their executives histories with low-cost chip manufacturing techniques.
Solyndra founder and CEO Christian Gronet has a Ph.D. in semiconductor processing from Stanford University, spent over a decade at chip company Applied Materials and also founded G-Squared Semiconductor Corporation, which was eventually acquired by Applied Materials. In Solyndra’s S-1 it says:
We have drawn on our management team’s extensive expertise in the semiconductor equipment industry to design and construct the customized equipment that is used in the manufacturing of our photovoltaic modules and panels. . . . Our highly automated equipment has been developed to the latest semiconductor manufacturing standards, comparable to equipment used for computer chip production. We expect this strategy will expand our production capacity by accelerating improvements in efficiency, yield and throughput of our production facilities.
Solyndra is still working to bring down its manufacturing costs (it expects to reach grid parity by 2012), but it’s progress so far has drawn the investment of close to $1 billion in private equity, as well as the first Department of Energy loan guarantee.
eSolar, a company building solar thermal technology, is also looking for leadership with a chip record. Last week the company announced that effective February 2010, John Van Scoter, who has a 25-year career at chip company Texas Instruments, would take over as CEO.
In an interview last week Van Scoter told me that the dynamics of the solar markets today, remind him of the semiconductor industry of over 25 years ago, right before it took off. “The big breakthroughs have yet to come,” said Van Scoter, adding that the conjoining of factors and mega-trends, from government policy, to energy security, to utility movements toward renewables, “all are coming together.”
eSolar’s next focus is on “hypergrowth,” said Van Scoter, and that all has to do with the minuteau of cutting costs, finding suppliers and developing low cost manufacturing. That’s all stuff that Van Scoter gained experience with at TI. It’s looking like the next-generation of solar leaders will have resumes filled with semiconductors.