By: Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for The New York Times
Applied Materials is one of the most important U.S. companies you’ve probably never heard of. It makes the machines that make the microchips that go inside your computer. The chip business, though, is volatile, so in 2004, Mark Splinter, Applied Materials’ CEO, decided to add a new business line to take advantage of the company’s nanotechnology capabilities- making the machines that make solar panels.
The other day, Splinter gave me a tour of the company’s Silicon Valley facility, culminating with a visit to it’s “war room,” where Applied maintains a real-time global interaction with all 14 solar panel factories it has built around the world in the past two years. Not a single one is in America. Five are in Germany, four are in China, one is in Spain, one is in India, one is in Taiwan and one is even in Abu Dhabi.
The reason all these other countries are building solar-panel industries today is because most of their governments have put in place the three perquisites for growing a renewable energy industry:
- any business or homeowner can generate solar energy;
- if they decide to do so, the power utility has to connect them to the grid; and
- the utility has to buy the power for a predictable period at a price that is a no-brainer good deal for the family or business putting the solar panels on their rooftop.
That is what Germany put in place, and that explains why Germany now generates almost half the solar power in the world today and, as a byproduct, is making itself the world-center for solar research, engineering, manufacturing and installation. With more than 50,000 new jobs, the renewable energy industry in Germany is now second only to its auto industry.