March 06, 2008

Silicon Valley turns to the sun

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Given the valley’s tremendous success in recent years with such down-to-earth products as search engines and music players, tackling solar power might seem improbable. Yet some of the valley’s best brains are captivated by the challenge, and they hope to put the development of solar technologies onto a faster track.

There is, after all, a precedent for how the valley tries to approach such tasks, and it’s embodied in Moore’s Law, the maxim made famous by the Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. Moore’s Law refers to rapid improvements in computer chips — which would be accompanied by declining prices.

A link between Moore’s Law and solar technology reflects the engineering reality that computer chips and solar cells have a lot in common.

“A solar cell is just a big specialized chip, so everything we’ve learned about making chips applies,” says Paul Saffo, an associate engineering professor at Stanford and a longtime observer of Silicon Valley.

Financial opportunity also drives innovators to exploit the solar field. “This is the biggest market Silicon Valley has ever looked at,” says T. J. Rogers, the chief executive of Cypress Semiconductor, which is part-owner of the SunPower Corporation, a maker of solar cells in San Jose, Calif.

Mr. Rogers, who is also chairman of SunPower, says the global market for new energy sources will ultimately be larger than the computer chip market.

“For entrepreneurs, energy is going to be cool for the next 30 years,” he says.

Optimism about creating a “Solar Valley” in the geographic shadow of computing all-stars like Intel, Apple and Google is widespread among some solar evangelists.

“The solar industry today is like the late 1970s when mainframe computers dominated, and then Steve Jobs and I.B.M. came out with personal computers,” says R. Martin Roscheisen, the chief executive of Nanosolar, a solar company in San Jose, Calif.

Remember when laptops weighed 10 lbs , had 7" screens and costs upwards fo $4,000? That's the stage we're at with solar right now. Just wait... give solar ten years and you'll see a similar trend.

Posted by mcblogger at March 6, 2008 12:08 PM

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