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Thursday, March 19, 2009

From the Cultural Revolution to the Solar Revolution

Samuel Yang, Vice General Manager of JA Solar was among the recent speakers at this week’s SOLARCON China and he told an interesting story about how people during China’s Cultural Revolution survived and adapted during times of great stress. He told the story to reflect on today’s difficult economic situation. During this time, education was disdained; professionals and academics were sent to re-education camps to learn the values of the collective commune. Families adapted by learning to educate their children at home, often in secret. When times changed, the country was stronger, having instilled a broad based, grounded respect for knowledge and educational achievement.

Drawing parallels to today, he said that now is the time to focus on internal strengths. He said that individual companies can’t control the macroeconomic environment, they can only adapt to opportunities all around them. He used another uniquely-Chinese example to make his point by describing how the mythical Chinese warrior may lose a battle, but will retreat to the mountains to develop his skills for a triumphant return.

The most common mantra in the West for dealing with the global recession is the oft-quoted remarks by Craig Barrett at Intel: “Every time you have a recession, you try to save your way out. Never works. You have to invest your way out of a recession.”

Every culture, every individual, every business is dealing with the economic crisis in different ways, some effectively, some less so.

There are many personal and organizational responses to the catastrophic recession: work harder, focus on core competencies, diversify, learn new skills, customer-focus, cut costs, etc. These common responses are certainly valid and rational. They can be accompanied with elaborate details, complete with project schedules, pert charts, balance sheets, business scenarios, and action plans. What they often lack though, is passion.

The semiconductor industry was built on passion. Pioneers of the industry knew they were building the Information Age. They knew they were part of a unique time in the human story, comparable to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Age, the Age of Democracy. There was greatness all around them and they knew they were making history.

This passion was the foundation of SEMI. It drew leaders together, not just through mutual business interest and shared objectives, but through the shared experience of extraordinary times, accomplishing remarkable achievements that extended beyond themselves, their companies, even their industry, and impacting the entire human experience.

Much of this passion, this knowledge of greatness, is leaving the industry. The Information Age is nearly 30 years old. A new generation of leaders is desperately trying to survive. A common perception exists that even when the rebound occurs, the industry will never be the same. As the industry association, SEMI could never be more valuable, more effective, better staffed, better managed, more global than today, but the binding emotional spark of an earlier era, the shared reward of participating in a historical era, is distant and cloudy.

But a new age is upon us where great genius, great urgency, great opportunity, and great need are dawning. Solar energy will remake the world, maybe even save it. Unsubsidized grid parity is fast approaching and will occur in most regions of the world by the end of the decade. By 2050, solar power could deliver over 50% of the world’s electricity, bringing light, heat and hope to billions of people currently without grid connected power. It is the leading solution that could protect the world from devastating climate change.

It is a mission every bit as an important, worthwhile, life affirming, and valuable as that which drove the semiconductor industry and the Information Age. It is this generation’s call to greatness.

Not all SEMI members currently participate in the solar industry, but many are extending their knowledge of wafer processing and thin film manufacturing to PV. Many are asking the association to take a leadership position in PV, to address both the shared business interests of the industry, as well as provide the emotional connections of joining a monumental global challenge. They are asking us to invest scarce resources into PV and transition away from semiconductors to the emerging opportunities and overwhelming demands of the nascent solar industry. These are difficult, gut-wrenching decisions for SEMI, not without enormous risk. These same risks are being faced by many SEMI members who are peering into the future of semiconductors and are uncertain and fearful of the shape of what they dimly see.

Especially during these trying times, individuals and companies have to make difficult decisions. Sometimes the right decision is to work harder, work smarter, retrench, right-size, and retreat into the mountains to save yourself for future battles. Yet greatness doesn’t retrench. It seeks to change the world in ways that few can foresee. The founders of the semiconductor industry knew this. The leaders of the next great epoch in science and technology know this as well.

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