Silicon Insider: Solar Companies Glow Despite Economic Slump

So, it goes without saying that when the word "green" comes to mind, T.J. Rodgers, the ultimate free market libertarian, is probably the last person you'd ever think of. And yet, here he is, at the absolute epicenter of the Green Revolution, helping lead the charge that will likely very soon make solar power as inexpensive as other sources of electricity.

And SunPower is rapidly becoming a more important business to Cypress than semiconductors themselves.

The story of how T.J. got to this point is one of the great untold business stories of the new century. And it should serve as an object lesson to those who wish to change the world by fiat, rather than by market forces. A column is too short a space to tell it all, but I can give you a quick summary.

In 2001, at the very moment when the chip industry was sliding into one of the worst slumps in its history, T.J. went before the Cypress board and asked its permission to purchase, of all things, a solar power company. Needless to say, the board was skeptical – even more so when it turned out that the solar company was owned by one of Rodgers' grad school buddies.

When the board resisted, T.J. went ahead and invested $750,000 of his own money to keep SunPower afloat. In the end, it took 15 months, basically, until the chip industry began to turn around — before the Cypress board agreed to invest $9 million into SunPower.

But what T.J., who just happened to have invented one of the basic chip fabrication formulas (VMOS), understood that his board, his industry, and most of the rest of the world didn't appreciate, was that in its heart the solar power business was in fact a semiconductor industry.

It didn't start out that way, but look at today's solar electric panels: Most are made using semiconductor-thin film technology that is a direct descendent of the pioneering work done by companies such as Fairchild, Motorola and Texas Instruments in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

What those guys were trying to do was take the greatest product of the age, the solid-state transistor, and figure out how to make it smaller and easier to reproduce. They did so first by making it flat (Noyce's and Kilby's integrated circuit), then turning it into a kind of printing technique (Hoerni's planar process).

A decade later, one of the scientists who worked with Noyce and Hoerni, Gordon Moore, by then co-founder of Intel, realized that this miniaturization/mass-production technique was advancing at a rate never seen before in human endeavor. This formulation was the famous Moore's Law, which defines the modern world.

Most of us now understand, and appreciate, Moore's Law, but in the semiconductor industry they live it every day. And T.J. is one of the best of them. And what he saw in SunPower was the impending arrival of Moore's Law to the alternative power world … and more than anyone, he knew what that meant.

As he has admitted, what he saw wasn't Green, as in environmentalism, but "green," as in money. That's why he made such an unlikely move — and why he is now an even richer tycoon.

This takes a singular combination of vision, guts and the kind of strategic thinking that is only found in real, business-oriented entrepreneurs – not in government bureaucrats, or, for that matter, reporters.

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