Solar panels aren't that different, from a manufacturing perspective, than LCD TVs.
That's one of the reasons South Korean conglomerates like LG Electronics and Samsung aim to become major solar producers. LG today said that it would begin commercial production of solar modules in January. LG's first factory will have the capacity to produce 520,000 modules and it will open another factory in 2011.
Rival Samsung, meanwhile, has said it wants to be one of the largest solar producer by 2015 from a base of effectively zero today.
A portion of the production will go toward solar cells for the domestic market. Approximately 274 megawatts of solar panels were planted in South Korea in 2008, six times the year before, making it the fourth largest market worldwide for solar-panel installations (and the largest one in Asia), according to research firm Displaybank.
But in South Korea, exports are the where the action is. Government policies are geared toward stimulating exports and the large electronics firms derive most of their revenues from North America and Europe.
Solar is a natural for both LG and Samsung. Solar panels essentially consist of semiconductors intricately laid out on large glass substrates. The larger the glass substrate, the cheaper the solar panels become because more, and more watts of generating capacity, can be produced simultaneously. The same principles apply in LCD TV manufacturing and both LG and Samsung are two of the largest and most proficient LCD makers. The region that houses the manufacturing and R&D base for them and other companies is called Crystal Valley. One U.S. start-up called Telio Solar, started by ex-Samsung execs, says it can make copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar cells on manufacturing lines grafted from LCD factories.
Expect to see both LG and Samsung generate increasing amounts of attention for energy efficient appliances--both sell upscale appliances and have touted water and energy efficiency-- and manufacturing. Samsung wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both its operations and from the use of its products by 50 percent by 2013 on a normalized sales basis.
"A large portion of our or manufacturing is in semiconductors, so there, reduction is about simplifying the lines, being more efficient about processing the wafers," David Steel, senior vice president of strategic marketing told us earlier this year. Tinkering with chemical deposition equipment and vacuum pumps cuts 15,000 tons of GHGs a year.
This sort of tinkering, of course, will also reduce the greenhouse gas component of their solar cells. It normall takes four years to work off the carbon footprint of a solar module.