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Why Intel’s First Venture Into Consulting Is With A Silicon Valley Solar Startup

Will applying the lessons learned making computer chips to solar panels result in really cheap solar power?

Intel

Solar startups often have impressively big ideas about how they’re going to scale up the next revolutionary technology, but few get the job done. Hence, our lack of solar power. Intel thinks it can help.

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Intel just took on its first consulting job with MiaSole, a Silicon Valley solar startup that manufactures copper indium gallium
selenide (CIGS) thin film solar modules, which are less efficient than silicon but also cheaper to produce–meaning they could potentially have widespread appeal to people who worry about the cost of installing solar. Up until now, companies like MiaSole have found it difficult to scale up because the CIGS manufacturing process is much more complicated than the silicon-module manufacturing process. But Intel, which knows how to manufacture a lot of complicated computer chips quickly and error-free, might make all the difference for MiaSole. The startup will have 12 Intel employees looking for improvements at its manufacturing sites full-time for at least the next year. So how did a once-faltering solar startup get involved with a world-class manufacturing company?

CEO Joe Laia may be at least partially to thank. The former semiconductor executive came onboard in 2007 with a healthy dose of skepticism for the solar industry. Laia was at Los Alamos National Lab as the solar industry first went down the tubes when Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as President. ” I saw the aftermath of the last solar boom, and I had no desire to be involved with an activity that involved government subsidies,” he says.

But after speaking with MiaSole board member John Doerr and taking a tour of MiaSole, Laia decided to take on the challenge–and the subsidies. When Laia arrived, MiaSole was producing modules at 5% efficiency. Now the startup makes CIGS modules at 12% efficiency, and it hopes to reach 14% efficiency at a cost of under 85 cents a watt by the end of the year. That would be approaching the efficiency of silicon modules (which hit 15%) at a much cheaper price than the $1.05 per watt they cost in the best-case scenario.

But MiaSole still needs Intel’s help in making its manufacturing seamless and efficient: “We can make solar cells and we can make modules, but we don’t know how to make a
million of the same thing at the same cost with the same level of factory
performance,” says Laia. “I have seen every semiconductor manufacturer, and there is no one in the world better than Intel.”

Intel, for its part, is using the opportunity to experiment with consulting for small manufacturers. Laia speculates that “they think they
can generate a significant amount of revenue from the consulting business, and they wanted
someone to go work with to see how this will actually work.” Ideally, the company will help MiaSole achieve the superhuman efficiency and reliability found on Intel factory lines.

“I dont think people realize what a big coup this is for us,” says Laia. Everyone will figure it out sooner or later–that is, if MiaSole can trounce its CIGS competitors and bring cheap solar to the masses.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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