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Cleantech entrepreneurs worked hard to convince themselves that their appointed hour had arrived. When he announced his new company in 2008, SpectraWatt CEO Andrew Wilson stated that “[t]he solar industry is akin to where the microprocessor industry was in the late 1970s. There is a lot to be figured out and improved.” The second part was right, but the microprocessor analogy was way off. Ever since the first microprocessor was built in 1970, computing advanced not just rapidly but exponentially. Look at Intel’s early product release history: The first silicon solar cell, by contrast, was created by Bell Labs in 1954—more than a half century before Wilson’s press release. Photovoltaic efficiency improved in the intervening decades, but slowly and linearly: Bell’s first solar cell had about 6% efficiency; neither today’s crystalline silicon cells nor modern thin-film cells have exceeded 25% efficiency in the field. There were few engineering developments in the mid-2000s to suggest impending liftoff. Entering a slow-moving market can be a good strategy, but only if you have a definite and realistic plan to take it over. The failed cleantech companies had none.
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