This “letter to the editor” is in response to a column in EE Times about the need for the IC industry to investigate solar energy (see Dec. 2 story).
I think you're missing the boat here. Asking the very large, mainstream digital electronics manufacturing firms a rhetorical question to the effect of ‘why aren't you working on solar?’ … is a question which largely answers itself this way: a really big solar-cell array has perhaps 10,000 diodes, connected in a very simple series/parallel network.
This is just not what the big firms do. In particular, there is no chance for large markets of differentiated products, based on re-arranging the topology of the connections.
Better photovoltaic cells (and improvements to the processes to make the cost per watt more attractive) are fundamental physics and manufacturing process problems.
In theory, large area silicon photodiodes should be cheap. They aren't. They are getting cheaper, but they have never gotten as cheap as fast as the optimists have claimed they would.
And then the really big enchilada: solar and other variable sources (including wind energy) face large barriers to integration into the national power supply system at penetration above 5 percent, unless improved forms of power storage become available.
That's not a problem that silicon can solve, but it's a problem which needs a solution if solar power is to outgrow its niche status.
Dr. Lee Harrison
Atmospheric Sciences Research Center
State University of New York, Albany
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