Applied Materials to outshine Google with solar

Company that sells manufacturing tools to the solar industry is going to be one of the industry's biggest customers, too.

A company that sells manufacturing tools to the solar industry is going to be one of the solar industry's biggest customers, too.

Applied Materials will install solar panels that will be capable of generating 1.9 megawatts of power on the roofs of the buildings of its Sunnyvale, Calif.-based campus. That's bigger than the 1.6 megawatt facility search giant Google announced to great fanfare last year. When it's fully operational in 2008, Applied's system will provide about the same amount of electricity that would be consumed by 1,400 homes, according to the company.

It also will be one of the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) installations in North America, although more large projects are on the drawing board, according to various analysts and solar executives. Solar is more advanced in Europe and Asia. Sharp, which makes solar panels, has a 5.2 megawatt facility in Kameyama, Japan.

Applied primarily gets its revenue from selling equipment to chipmakers like Intel and Freescale. Last year, though, the company bought Germany's Applied Films and announced plans to greatly expand into the growing solar market. Solar PV panels are made of crystalline silicon, so much of Applied's know-how transfers directly to the solar industry. The company also hopes to produce equipment for thin-film solar panels, which are largely made with processes that were first honed in computer component manufacturing.

The demand for equipment could be significant, according to Applied. Applied CEO Mike Splinter, on the company's annual conference call this week, said the world will need about 1,975 gigawatts of new electric generating capacity between 2007 and 2017. PV panels could supply 105GW of that amount, or about 5 percent of new electric demand over the time period. That could mean $125 billion in equipment.

Solar plants will be huge too. By 2010, a number of solar-cell manufacturers will be running solar plants with 10 production lines, and each production line will be capable of squeezing out 100 megawatts' worth of solar cells a year, according to Charlie Gay, vice president and general manager of Applied's Solar Business Group.

A 1,000-megawatt solar facility will likely be 200 times larger than the typical 300-millimeter semiconductor facility, according to Gay. Those often cover more than 10,000 square meters. Unlike chips, solar cells don't shrink in size over time without losing efficiency. These factories will consume about a ton of silicon an hour.

Solar PV panels generate electricity by knocking electrons loose from sunlight. Another solar technology, solar thermal, generates electricity by harnessing heat from the sun. Solar thermal plants generally produce more electricity, but they are usually located in isolated desert valleys, are owned by utilities and provide power to distant buildings. Solar PV panels are generally put on top of buildings and provide electricity to the building owners.

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