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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Silicon Valley Starts to Turn Its Face to the Sun

T. J. Rogers, chief of Cypress Semiconductor, on the roof of a company building covered in solar panels. Cypress is an owner of the SunPower Corporation.

CAN Silicon Valley become a world leader in cheap and ubiquitous solar panels for the masses?

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.

Nanosolar shipped its first “thin film” solar panels in December, and the company says it ultimately wants to produce panels that are both more efficient in converting sunlight into electricity and less expensive than today’s versions. Dramatic improvements in computer chips over many years turned the PC and the cellphone into powerful, inexpensive appliances — and the foundation of giant industries. Solar enterprises are hoping for the same outcome.

To be sure, Silicon Valley’s love affair with solar could be short-lived.

“We’ve seen a lot of pipe dreams in the industry over the years, a lot of wild claims never came through,” says Lisa Frantzis, a specialist in renewable energy at Navigant Consulting in Burlington, Mass.

Another brake on the pace of solar innovation might be consumer behavior. It often can be hard to get consumers to change their habits, and homeowners may be slow to swap out expensive water heaters for newfangled solar solutions. Reliability is also an issue: while current solar technologies have proved relatively durable, it’s unknown how resilient the next generation of solar will be.

“We need technologies that can survive on a rooftop for 20 years,” says Barry Cinnamon, chief executive of Akeena Solar Inc. of Los Gatos, Calif., a designer and installer of solar systems.

Affordable solar development is also still dependent on government subsidies.

“Mass adoption requires technological innovations that dramatically lower costs,” says Peter Rive, the chief operations officer of SolarCity in Foster City, Calif., a system designer and installer.

So what does the valley bring to the mix? Expertise in miniaturization and a passion for novelty among its entrepreneurs.

“There are suddenly a lot of new ideas coming into this field,” says Paul Alivisatos, a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, who also has his own solar start-up.

One novel approach is called “solar thermal,” which uses large mirrors to generate steam to run conventional turbines that generate electricity.

In 2006, Vinod Khosla, a veteran venture capitalist best known as a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, discovered an obscure Australian company, Ausra, pursuing solar thermal. He persuaded the management of Ausra to move to Silicon Valley and helped it raise money.

Ausra recently signed a deal with PG&E, the big California utility company, to supply a large solar plant. “The best work in solar is happening in Silicon Valley,” Mr. Khosla says.

Another exciting area is thin-film solar, in which cells are created in roughly the same way that memory is created on dense storage devices like hard-disk drives — allowing the nascent industry to tap into the valley’s expertise.

At Nanosolar, for instance, some of those in top management come directly from Seagate Technology and I.B.M., two traditional titans in computer storage.

The promise of Solar Valley has investors opening their wallets as never before. But some worry that promising technologies of today must be renewed, and quickly, if the logic of Moore’s Law is to define solar.

“There’s a lot of money being thrown at the problem and that’s healthy; it gives it a real chance of succeeding,” Mr. Alivisatos says. “But so much of our effort is going into short-term victories that I worry our pipeline will go dry in 10 years.”

The fear of a solar bubble is legitimate, but after years of stagnation, entrepreneurs say the recent developments in the field are welcome. Long ignored by the most celebrated entrepreneurs in the land and now embraced as one of the next big things, solar energy may gain traction because of a simpler rule than Moore’s Law: where there’s a will, there’s a way.

G. Pascal Zachary teaches journalism at Stanford and writes about technology and economic development. E-mail: gzach@nytimes.com.

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