Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

R&D Can Bring Down Solar Manufacturing Cost

Aninda Moitra, MD of Applied Materials, world's largest maker of equipment for semiconductor manufacturing, tells Forbes India that incremental changes in technology can counter the volatility in the solar industry

Published: Feb 7, 2012 06:13:00 AM IST
Updated: Feb 17, 2014 12:40:05 PM IST
R&D Can Bring Down Solar Manufacturing Cost

Aninda Moitra
38 years
Designation: President & managing director, Applied Materials India; Vice President, Applied Materials
Career: Joined Applied Materials after college and has been with the company for the past 16 years in various positions
Education: MBA, Columbia Business School, New York; Bachelor of Science, chemical engineering, University of Minnesota
Interests: Loves the outdoors and sports; cricket is a big hobby, keeps abreast of tournaments even while in the US. Plays tennis, badminton and golf as often as he can

Q. The solar sector has become very unpredictable; you had to shut down the thin film line. How do you see the impact on manufacturing in India?

We stopped the thin film line, but we are still the largest equipment maker for crystalline [solar] cells. If you look at what happened during Batch II closure [of projects in the National Solar Mission], no Indian manufacturer was there; it was driven by the cost of capital. This is the reality. In solar manufacturing, you can drive cost down either through scale or by using financial instruments like you know [what China uses]. India, for valid reasons, cannot pull these two levers easily. I think at the end of it, the only way to bring down the cost is technology differentiation.

Q. Is that why you have invested over $12 million in IIT Bombay  and are now involved with the new Pan-IIT solar R&D programme where you intend to donate more equipment?
In the short-term you have to pull one of the two levers or else it’s going to be very painful. The question is, do you withdraw or do you retrench? I think retrenching is long-term R&D and there are enough Indian companies under big umbrellas to handle this. If you withdraw, then you are always in this ‘do-cycle’. At the end of this, you have to think, who is taking away this ‘Indian consumer power benefit’?

Q. Can R&D solve this problem any time soon?
The installed base of all the large companies will dictate solar technology for now. While disruptive technology is the long-term answer, I think there is incremental pathway available that can help us move the efficiency curve [of solar cells] —from 17 percent  to 23-25 percent—as well as the cost curve. New materials can take us there and we can use the same equipment.

Q. A fabrication facility has eluded India so far. Now that the Department of IT has floated a tender, do you think India will finally have one?
The process is going on full steam and a foundry is very likely in the near future. Both the need and the end market in India today warrant that some centres of high value manufacturing, such as in aerospace and defence, take off. If you start with national security, most of the semiconductors come from outside. That’s a substantial risk. On the other hand, India today has actual customer power; the scale can drive both analog and digital chips.

Q. If the foundry materialises, do you think you’d have the last laugh, after all you’ve been priming the ecosystem for a while?
(Laughs) That’s a good way to end this conversation.

(This story appears in the 17 February, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)