The exit of a large and influential technology company like Applied Materials from the thin-film solar market can only be seen as a serious setback for solar technology development and the sustainable energy industry.
One reason is that energy is now a strategic industry, and Applied Materials is critical to the success of American renewable energy efforts. A key reason of course is that the Silicon Valley company is developing the infrastructure of tools and materials needed to scale up solar technology.
The company’s decision to shutter its SunFab thin-film solar unit is another indication that Applied Materials wants to focus its solar operations on the booming Chinese market. That represents a strategic loss for U.S. energy technology efforts.
Applied Materials, which has shifted most of its energy-related operations to China, said it will further consolidate operations around its R&D center in Xi’an, China.
Company CEO Michael Splinter laid out the reality of the global energy technology market during an Energy Department conference in March: “This year, China will make 45 percent and the United States will make 5 percent of the solar panels in the world, in a market that’s growing 30 to 50 percent a year. How did that happen?”
The answer, according to Splinter, is that China “saw an opportunity; they thought they could lower the cost [of solar panels] in a market that has demand. They got access to low-cost capital, invested and built factories, used their manufacturing prowess.”
Among the reasons for the demise of SunFab, Splinter told reporters during a conference call to elaborate on the decision, are “changes and uncertainty in government renewable energy policies.” While there may be uncertainty about America’s energy future, the fact is that the Obama administration has been spending billions of borrowed dollars on renewable energy development (and paying a high political price for this investment). It also has organized an Energy Department agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, to oversee development of disruptive energy technologies.
From here, it looks like Splinter’s assertion of “uncertainty” in U.S. renewable energy policy is a smoke screen for moving Applied Materials’ solar operations to China. That’s a loss for the nation.