Anand Anandkumar
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Solar energy has been around for a long time, but not much has been invested in advancing this technology until recently. The recent green focus, awareness of global climate change, and soaring oil and electricity prices are drastically changing the situation. Solar or photovoltaic (PV) technology adoption worldwide is poised to grow appreciably in the near future. Now, investments are starting to pour into the solar industry - and that presents opportunities for the chip and EDA industries.

In India, solar power has evolved from powering satellites, hilltop microwave feeders, and villages that traditionally rely on diesel generators for electricity, for supplementing grid power to reduce electricity costs. As a result, solar energy is getting significant support from the Indian government, which has set an ambitious goal of procuring five percent renewable energy for its power grids by 2015 and to save 10,000 megawatts by 2012 through energy-saving measures. The Indian solar industry is still at a nascent stage and it is the perfect time for the government to frame and implement policies and programs that will attract domestic and foreign investments in this sector. Solar cell manufacturing is on the priority list of the state panel set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to frame a national policy for the manufacturing sector.

The National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council (NMCC), which supported the India Semiconductor Association (ISA) study on solar energy, has suggested that the solar mission be given a higher level of empowerment, along the lines of India’s space missions or nuclear power initiatives.

India’s solar cell industry produced 45MW equivalent of solar cells in the fiscal year ending March 2007, the latest year for which data is available, posting a growth of 21.6 percent over the previous fiscal year. The ISA report identifies key application segments with high market potential for solar products – rural electrification for remote villages where implementing solar power is cheaper than extending the grid, backup power for telecom base towers that currently use diesel-based backup, roof-top solar power systems for commercial buildings, and grid connected power generation.

With India’s geographical diversity and complexity rural electrification isn’t possible through conventional energy systems. Solar energy could be used to power 80,000 un-electrified villages in India. The energy demand in urban areas is also growing fast. As a result, there is tremendous potential ahead for solar cell fabs.

The problem is that solar-converted electricity costs two to three times as much to produce as the energy generated from traditional sources. Inefficient energy conversion and the need to produce a very large number of wafers contribute to the high cost. Only about 16 percent of sunlight that hits a solar cell wafer can be collected as usable electricity. To produce sufficient number of solar cells to generate 500 megawatts a year, a solar cell fab must produce as many as 400,000 wafers a day, an exponentially larger number than even the largest semiconductor plants produce. The cost of the silicon alone, not to mention the manufacturing costs, for that number of wafers is enormous.

Improving the energy conversion efficiency, reducing the manufacturing costs, and increasing the yield of silicon wafer-based solar cells are critical to the growth of the solar market.

Semiconductor manufacturing tools such as rapid fault detection, advanced process control, and integrated yield management - which enabled rapid technology advancements and fast semiconductor yield ramps - are now critically needed in the solar cell manufacturing industry. No market or industry can thrive where the materials costs of solar cells is around 60-70 percent, as it is in India today. And, every possible milliwatt of energy must be squeezed out of solar cells.

To keep up with the already overwhelming demand, solar energy conversion efficiency and solar cell yield must be optimized. Magma and Pegasus Semiconductor are already working together to develop a yield management tool for solar fabs. By working together to accelerate innovation in the solar fabrication process, the opportunity for growth is significant for both the semiconductor and electronic design automation (EDA) industries.

The author is VP-Globalization and Managing Director, Magma Design Automation India. He can be reached at ananda@magma-da.com
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