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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Historic Milestone? Only Time Will Tell

It was an exciting day today as over 130 leaders from the semiconductor and solar industry packed a small room in the Intercontinental hotel to talk about a possible solar technology roadmap along the lines of the ITRS. The meeting was jointly arranged by the DOE and SEMI PV Group about 10 days ago. The PV Roadmap Workshop sold out in about 2 hours after the initial announcement email. We had about 100 on the waiting list.

The crowd was a mix of semiconductor veterans who have played leading roles in the ITRS process, and skeptical solar industry technologists who questioned how their competitors, academics and other “outsiders” could help them in their race towards grid parity and IPO glory. There were a lot of old timers from the early days of the chip business, and young solar hot shots at the height of their careers who plan to save the world and get rich in the process--exactly the kind of mix of people you hope for, and worry about, when we co-located Intersolar and SEMICON West.

It was hard to anticipate which way the meeting would go. Cell and module makers are still in their early phase of the industry where many believe they enjoy competitive advantage in manufacturing. It’s hard for many current industry leaders to fully understand the benefits of pre-competitive collaboration when they are already outperforming their competitors. Before the crash in October, they could sell whatever they could make. The industry prides itself on a long history of conversion and efficiency improvements, yet the productivity learning curve industry is unimpressive at best (about the same as shipbuilding and machine tools, pretty crappy really).

And PV is nothing like chips. Without the unifying paradigm of the process node, what would drive a technology roadmap? And how would the US DOE drive it, knowing the Germans, Japanese and Chinese would have to be a part of it for it to be effective. Was everyone there just looking for Obama stimulus funds?

All those concerns quickly evaporated. It was a great meeting.

Everyone got a quick update on the technology roadmap efforts in Japan, Europe and the US (EPIA and NEDO/METI from Japan). They saw how these were a mix of R&D efforts, industry advocacy and promotion and not an attempt to coordinate private capital and private ingenuity to achieve accelerated, common objectives.

They also got a fine update on the ITRS itself: how it works, what is applicable to PV and what isn’t, how thin film and crystalline might be able to co-exist under a single framework.

Breakout sessions dove into the details: materials, factory integration, thin film and wafer, cells and modules. We struggled with silicon concepts—wafer, square, or ribbons. We struggled with substrates—how thin, how hard, how flexible, how long. Could this diversity be assembled into a roadmap? Are we too early, too late?

As the breakout sessions reconvened, the question was asked, “Do you think a International Technology Roadmap process for solar was needed?” and nearly everyone raised their hand, high. No one argued against it. I had the feeling that most folks in the room understood the opportunities in a technology roadmap, and the complex, daunting challenges and barriers ahead. This will not be an easy. I sensed that everyone knew a PV technology roadmap will be different than the ITRS, but that the ideas, processes and symbols of ITRS would be the guide.

I don’t think I was alone in feeling that an important step was taken for the industry and for the world. History Being Made? Only Time Will Tell.

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