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Analysis: Investing in renewable technologies

Posted: 20 Nov 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:renewable technology? Moore's Law? green engineering?

It was a good line, and it also happens to be true: "Moore's Law never mentioned anything about power efficiency," said Brian Halla, CEO of National Semiconductor during the Electronica exhibition. Halla was referring to the inherent power efficiency of analog technology over digital, hence its desirability as a basis for new energy-saving technologies.

Halla's contention may well turn out to be true, but semiconductor and related industries like LED manufacturers are now seeking to convert all the talk about "green" engineering into another kind of green. With much of the rest of their business going in the tank (National Semiconductor announced job cuts later in the week after Halla's appearance at the exhibit), chipmakers are looking for ways to build a sustainable business model around renewable technologies like power management components and systems as well as energy-harvesting modules.

A key concern for energy technology startups is the current credit squeeze. Some of the seed money and tax incentives will have to come from government to stimulate market growth, Carlo Bozotti, CEO of STMicroelectronics, asserted during what has become the French-Italian chip maker's standard pitch for green energy. "It's a matter of investment," Bozotti said.

Indeed, investment bankers prowled the halls at Electronica looking for companies with viable green technologies. John McManus, senior director of Chicago-based Lincoln International, a global investment bank that focuses on mid-sized acquisition and mergers, said his firm has already invested in green manufacturers like Power-One, a developer of power conversion and power management systems. McManus said his firm is preparing to launch a new energy practice, largely because business is booming.

Asked whether green investment would slow as oil prices decline steadily, perhaps eroding the fervor for renewable energy technologies, McManus was unequivocal. "Investment in green technologies is here to stay," he said, adding that declining oil prices are "not going to stop the installation of new solar farms" like the massive installations in Spain and new ones in the southwest United States.

Nevertheless, other market watchers see trouble ahead, especially for the solar market. "With the credit market crunch, who can get a loan to build solar plants?" concludes a new report released Nov. 18 by the Information Network.

The report noted that the thin-film solar panel market and the related equipment market soared earlier this year due to a shortage of polysilicon used to make solar-grade silicon wafers. With polysilicon again plentiful, spot prices for 6-inch solar wafers has declined $3.50 since September to $9. The price drop means manufacturers will likely switch from lower efficiency thin-film panels to silicon alternatives with conversion efficiency rates of more than 16 percent.

Robert Castellano, president of the market researcher added: "The surge in thin-film panels [earlier this year] was a result of a severe shortage of polysilicon wafers used to make high-efficiency solar panels. This factor, combined with macroeconomic factors will redirect the revenue stream for the industry in the near term, but its impact will last longer."

Nevertheless, semiconductor industry executives here said chip technology also could be leveraged to add intelligence to new components like sensors and LEDs along with the power grid, resulting in energy savings of as much as 25 percent, they claimed, while helping to reduce greenhouse emissions. A hot topic here was the emergence of LEDs as an energy-efficient lighting alternative. Applications range from architectural lighting to automobile daytime "running" lights.

Ruediger Mueller, CEO of Osram Optical Semiconductors, predicted that prices for chip-based LEDs will begin to drop as semiconductor economies of scale kick in. Lowering unit costs could help make LEDs and other applications like energy-harvesting wireless sensor networks ubiquitous, developers of the technologies predict.

Chip executives like Freescale's Rich Beyer contended at Electronica that analog chip technologies will allow system designers to integrate more functionality that can be leveraged to save energy and reduce CO2 emissions. Predictably, Beyer and other chip executives dismissed the notion that added functionality will ultimately end up increasing power consumption.

Still, Mueller conceded that the constant addition of bells and whistles like car entertainment systems and the recharging of consumer electronic devices, not to mention power-hogging systems like large-screen displays, must be rethought.

"Is all the energy we consume really needed?" Mueller asked during a CEO roundtable.

Despite the enthusiasm, Lincoln International, which tracks the energy components market through its "Power Electronics Index," said the industry underperformed relative to the Standard & Poor's Index during Q3 08. The index declined 19.8 percent from the previous quarter, the firm said.

According to the index, Taiwan's Delta Electronics Inc. was the top performer among large companies based on its quarterly share price performance. New York-based Eaton Corp. registered the worst quarterly performance, Lincoln said.

-George Leopold
EE Times

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