Solar perovskite cells, patterned with gold electrodes, await tests that
measure their efficiency at converting sunlight into electricity. (Plamen Petkov)
In the 1950s vertically integrated giants such as IBM and AT&T evolved its telecommunication and semiconductor businesses by having their global network of suppliers compete for its business at every step of the value chain including and not limited to redesigning components and dramatically improve the performance and cost of electronics. But if you look at how clustered sustainable technologies supply chains in China work, it demonstrates that it will only reinforce the industry’s focus on today’s technology, rather than allow competition to drive tomorrow’s advances.
For instances the next generation technologies of solar and LED are developed at a slower pace in laboratories all over instead of today’s promising technologies such as the solar perovskites that could beat silicon on efficiencies and costs many folds if ramped up to scale production. But the more the solar/LED industry concentrates and calcifies in China, the harder such a disruption will happen. By subsidizing its domestic manufacturers, China also subsidizes clean energy deployment around the world. But this sort of argument by pro-deployment activists suggests that China’s dominance in solar/LED manufacturing is a boon to the world. In the near term, they may be right as the solar deployment is booming around the world, fuelled by cheap Chinese panels. But in the long term, today’s silicon/LED technologies will not displace even a substantial fraction of fossil fuel energy. This near-term/long-term disparity stems from the economics of electricity grids as solar’s/LED’s value declines as its penetration on the grid increases.
To look into this view a little deeper there are two reasons why dramatically superior technologies will likely not emerge if the solar/LED industry remains concentrated in China. Firstly, Chinese firms are more likely to pursue incremental process improvements and cost reduction e.g., optimizing factory layouts, strengthening supply chains rather than product innovation. Some might argue that this is a dated caricature of a newly dynamic Chinese innovation complex which benefits from lavish state-funded laboratories (cf. Chinese “State Key Labs”) and improved coordination among universities, research institutes, and corporations. Still, fundamental technology researchers in China are struggling to close the gap with Western counterparts, and most major manufacturers have displayed little interest in seriously funding alternative technologies. The second reason for pessimism is that if innovation flourishes only in a Chinese-dominated industry increases, vertical integration will eventually stifle disruptive change. For example China dominates not only the panel manufacturing business, but has consolidated the entire upstream supply chain within its borders, from polysilicon to solar cell production. Where the supply chain is not formally vertically integrated, it is de facto monolithic, simply by virtue of colocation in massive industrial centers like the Yangtze River Delta Economic Zone.
From 2006 to 2011, venture capitalists invested over $25 billion in clean technologies and lost over half their money needless to say, VC interest in new solar start-ups today is minimal. But there still appears to be a silver lining when large U.S. companies can play a crucial role in driving innovation in solar and sustainable technologies. Firms like Applied Materials and Dupont still achieve levels of quality that the Chinese have been unable to replicate (in solar cell production equipment and materials, respectively), giving the United States a toehold in the solar supply chain. Moreover, two large solar panel makers First Solar and Sunpower are American and employ more advanced technologies than their Chinese competitors. And SolarCity, a downstream residential solar installer, recently acquired an innovative solar technology company and will produce its own panels in Buffalo, New York. These American solar players are far more amenable than Chinese counterparts to exploring new technologies for commercialization, and they have the sector expertise, manufacturing prowess, and project pipeline to bring new solar technology to market where VCs failed. State incentives such as those that attracted SolarCity to New York, can support American companies to drive local economies. I would strongly recommend more federal research funding to be aimed at fostering partnerships between major American firms and cutting-edge research in universities and national research laboratories. Ideally we can look forward to a time when sustainable technologies such as solar is an industry waiting to be disrupted in the US and eventually worldwide.