Thursday, February 28, 2008

Solar Seismic Shift prediction

Green Tech Media's Jennifer Kho has an excellent post on the chances of a shakeup in the solar power industry and what that might mean. Greentech Media's Solar Market outlook panel seems to think a shakeup is inevitable and the only remaining question is one of timing. It almost seems like yesterday that the buzz started :-) Some of the predictions show the shakeout lasting two to three years and being driven by the massive capacity addition and subsequent price competition. The general feeling is that the companies which can ride out the shakeup will be in a great position five or so years out.

Jennifer Kho's post also identifies some of the largest trends affecting the industry such as aggregation, partnerships/acquisitions, cost reductions, cross over from semiconductors to clean tech and others. The posts covering these trends make interesting reading, especially the one showing executive crossover from high tech to clean tech including such luminaries as Bob Metcalfe(inventor of Ethernet) and Vinod Khosla.

Speaking of Vinod Khosla, he is making bold predictions, (again?). He predicts that India will be the next greentech hub, due to the availability of a large pool of scientists and technologists and a potential large market for clean energy. Since India has very little oil and gas resources within the country, historically they have made early attempts at building nuclear power plants and quite a few hydroelectric power plants. In fact, my father was an engineer who was involved in the construction of three or four major hydroelectric projects. As a kid I remember living near those construction sites in the rainforests of Kerala, and visiting several of the dams and the first underground powerhouse in India which he helped construct.

However, India's energy needs are growing by leaps and bounds with the country's progress as also the environmental impact from fossil fuel use. India probably needs clean energy more than most other countries, but Khosla probably is right that mass adoption may not come till prices come down.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Energy and the Future

Its been a while since I blogged and that has been, in part, due to a hectic schedule. Last Tuesday, February 12th, I helped put on an event on Energy and the Future with the MIT Club of Northern California Semiconductor Series. The speaker was Dr. Amit Kumar, CEO of Combimatrix, who did photovoltaic research at Caltech, Stanford and Harvard. I have written about a previous talk at PARC by Dr. Kumar in October 2007. He compares and contrasts various energy sources with a very analytical approach and presents a great overview of the global energy picture.

The talk was sold out and the enthusiastic audience posed several interesting questions. Since the data presented was very similar to the talk in October, I will not repeat it here. You can see my previous post in October, if there is interest. However, the questions the audience and Dr. Kumar himself posed and answered are interesting. Dr. Kumar feels that oil prices will continue to trend up in the future with some fluctuations as in the past decades. This is an interesting question in itself and I will look at it more closely in a future post, since much of the future of alternative energy sources may depend on the answer.

Dr. Kumar expects energy usage to double worldwide in 30 to 50 years from 15TW (Terawatts) to about 30TW. With fossil fuels as a primary source, cost goes up and carbon emissions increase with several complications. Solar energy provides a very viable way to address the whole energy issue, but several issues such as cost, storage and inverters have to be addressed with technological advances. The ultimate solution may be a combination of solar, hydro, wind and nuclear (fission and fusion). But, the effort required is bigger than the Manhattan or Apollo projects to effect serious change. Opportunities exist in solar in several areas - silicon supply or other materials, new types of cells, thin films, storage, catalysts for hydrogen evolution, inverters and electric vehicles.

Dr. Kumar sees plenty of employment opportunities in the Valley and beyond with the push for alternative energy, for both fresh graduates and experienced professionals.

But the Mercury News presents a dissenting view from the Director of the UC Energy Institute and UC Berkeley business professor, Severin Borenstein. Professor Borenstein is quoted as saying that we are throwing away money by installing current solar PV technology, especially on houses. He argues against Government subsidies and California's million solar roofs programs. As was to be expected, he met with a barrage of criticism from the solar industry :-) The post makes for interesting reading. But, the professor is not fazed and defends his views. You can find Professor Borenstein's bio here and his publications including the incendiary one noted above, "The Market Value and Cost of Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Production" here. Good to note Prof. Borenstein's MIT connections :-) (Thanks to Ed Gunther for suggesting I provide a link to the paper referred to ).

Regardless of the scientific or economic correctness of Professor Borenstein's views, I think the industry will be well served by all the activity and attention paid to alternative energy. Silicon Valley has always been characterized by risk and reward. Without the promise of reward, there would be very little risk taking. Just funding University or academic research in the hope of a scientific breakthrough eventually may make economic sense from one point of view, but, if you look at technology development in Silicon Valley, the industry and risk taking have pushed the edge much faster than traditional methods.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday in Silicon Valley

You can feel the excitement in the air. It was a crisp, cool and sunny day, and the excitement was palpable. Primary day is really big this time around. My son, who turned 18 last year, called home from UC Davis to find out our election views. It is a big day for him and many of his classmates who are voting for the first time. Though the Clintons visited UC Davis recently, the youth vote seems to be leaning in Obama's direction. Needless to say, California will have a big impact on the primary outcome. Its good to see the youth taking a serious interest in politics and the country's direction.

Regardless of who wins in the Democratic or Republican primary the outlook for technology support in the new White House seems to be strong. Who knows, we may see a resurgence of a technology boom in Web 2.0+ or clean technology. There seems to be strong support in both parties to re-energize the country by pushing for clean technology growth.

Speaking of Web 2.0, I have been getting a lot of questions recently on whether to NotchUp or not. NotchUp, of course, is the latest social networking/career development website which enables you to earn money to interview with companies. What's more, someone who refers you to NotchUp earns money on your earnings. Sound familiar ?

I have received several invitations to join the site and even more questions about whether one should join the site. The early reviews have been mixed. Here is a positive take on it, which is outnumbered by the negative takes on it. BusinessWeek has an even handed column on it. They note the spat brewing between LinkedIn and Notchup after NotchUp enabled quick connect to LinkedIn connections. However that turns out, NotchUp has attracted a lot of attention to itself very quickly and that in turn, attracts VCs and money. They seem to be using the tried and tested adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity :-) Life at a Silicon Valley startup is never dull :-)

Of course, the biggest news in Silicon Valley in the last week is the Microsoft bid for Yahoo last Friday and its impact on Google. Google stock took a dive on Friday, but is trending back up. The Mercury News has extensive coverage on the bid and one theory definitely seems to be that Microsoft wants more of a piece of the Valley action. Of course, they have had a relatively small Valley presence for a long time and have made some acquisitions over time, but this is a big one by any standards.

Much as we might want to think that its all about Valley technology and people :-), this appears motivated purely by ad dollars and Google competition, as Google probably realizes. There are interesting rumors that Google may counterbid or form an alliance with Yahoo and that Microsoft may raise the bid. We'll see how those turn out. The semiconductor industry took a while to get into a major acquisition and consolidation mode. The Internet business is relatively recent, if we take Netscape as the starting point in 1994. Perhaps, this is a sign that the rate of change of technology growth is accelerating.


© 2007, 2008 Madan Venugopal    All rights reserved.