Silicon Insider: Solar Companies Glow Despite Economic Slump

Here's a toast to the superiority of pragmatists over idealists. Of entrepreneurs over bureaucrats. And most of all to those buzz-cut, buttoned-down engineers and scientists of a half-century ago who thought they were just making cheaper transistors – and now may help save the world.

Amidst all of the gloomy – or, at best, hesitant – corporate financial news of the last few weeks, one industry sector literally seems aglow: solar. And therein lies an interesting morality – or more accurately, amorality – tale.

Just this week, First Solar Inc., a Phoenix-based solar module manufacturer with a design center in Ohio and a big manufacturing plant in Germany, announced spectacular quarterly numbers. For the fourth quarter, company earnings were $63 million, up nearly 800 percent from the same quarter a year ago. Meanwhile, revenues only quadrupled to $201 million. Not surprisingly, company stock jumped 30 percent, to nearly $230, on the news.

These are the kinds of numbers you see in small electronics start-ups, and usually during booms – not an infrastructure equipment company at the beginning of an economic downturn.

And First Solar wasn't alone. The company's announcement set off a surge in most other solar power stocks as well. My favorite (for reasons I'll soon explain), SunPower Corp., currently has a market cap of $3.2 billion, but recently reached a peak valuation of $10.4 billion – and seems to be headed in that direction again.

SunPower is majority owned by Cypress Semiconductor. And, of course, Cypress is run by one of my favorite people, T.J. Rodgers. Even if you know nothing about Silicon Valley or the semiconductor industry, you've probably heard of T.J.

He is easily one of the most controversial figures in American business and a lightning rod for everything people who hate business hate about business. Needless to say, we reporters love T.J., because he's always good for an outrageous and inflammatory quote.

T.J. is an unapologetic capitalist and an absolutely ferocious competitor. During the early 1990s, when the tech world, and especially chip companies, was suing everyone in sight over intellectual property, T.J. alone refused to cave in to the blackmail and sign licensing deals. He fought every single suit, bar none, and then wallpapered his office with copies of the complaints.

Then there was the nun, Sister Doris Gormley of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, who, acting as a social activist, wrote to Rodgers asking him to put more women and minorities on Cypress's board. T.J., a pure meritocrat who happens to be one of the great supporters of allowing more trained immigrants into the U.S., politely told the Sister to go to hell.

He later did the same thing to Jesse Jackson.

T.J. also came up against his own industry's joint venure project, Sematech, arguing that the government's money would be more wisely placed if it were broken up into small pieces and invested into new start-up companies. And, most recently, T.J. was back in the news battling the closed membership of the Dartmouth College Board of Trustees. His efforts in the last fight, along with Hoover Institution fellow Peter Robinson, set off a national debate about academic oversight that continues to this day.

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