Next step for solar industry: foundries

blog VC predicts solar cells will follow the chip industry, with Asia as the manufacturing center.

Making solar cells and solar panels isn't all that conceptually different from making computer chips, says Marko Maschek, a partner at venture capital firm 3i. As a result, one of the next things you could see in solar are foundries, or factories-for-hire.

"Solar cells will follow the semiconductor model," he said during a meeting at the Cleantech Forum taking place in San Francisco this week. "Asia is going to become the powerhouse for manufacturing."

Foundries radically altered the chip industry. In the 1970s, the same companies that designed chips owned their own factories. In the '80s, the emergence of companies like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing allowed (or forced) most chip designers to shed their fabs.

This doesn't mean that the U.S. and Europe are doomed in the clean market.

"The most interesting technologies are coming out of the U.S. and it will be the largest market," said Joern Pelzer, another partner at 3i. Instead, U.S. companies will come up with concepts and then forward them on to Asia for manufacturing.

Because of shipping costs, tasks outsourced to Asia will actually come back to the U.S. Some Chinese companies are already scoping out locations in the states to build factories, according to .

The movement toward foundries has already begun. Four solar-equipment manufacturers are already touting an ability to provide companies with turnkey factory solutions for making amorphous solar panels, Maschek said. Applied Materials, which jumped into solar-cell equipment manufacturing last year, has often touted its ability to produce turnkey systems for customers. (Amorphous solar panels are less efficient than the more common crystalline silicon solar panels, but they also cost less.)