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National Semiconductor execs are all smiles when it comes to SolarMagic

08 September 2008 | By Tom Cheyney | Chip Shots

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halla_nationalNational Semiconductor may have seen net income slip a bit in its latest quarterly results, but Brian Halla and his team have shown no erosion in their excitement over the company's initial product foray into the photovoltaics market space, launched in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2008: SolarMagic.

In National's conference call held last Friday, chairman/CEO Halla and president/COO Don Mcleod couldn't stop smiling as they shared a few more details about SolarMagic, which, as Halla noted in the press release announcing the company's latest financials, "significantly improves the efficiency of new or existing solar panel installations by recouping lost energy caused by shading or other suboptimal conditions."

During the conference call, the chief exec revealed that the product was "named by one of our first prospects to see the demo." He then goes on to describe the widget. "It's a technology that's panel agnostic; that is, it works with silicon, crystalline, and thin-film panel technologies. It's a device that bolts on to solar panels that restores power lost as a result of clouds going over, shade from trees or chimneys, bird droppings, and even nonuniformity of glass....Everyone here is having a lot of fun with this product line."

Macleod talked about how testing of SolarMagic has been coming along. "Our initial field trials working with solar panel installers demonstrated 10- 20% improvement in energy conversion in whole panel of reinstallations over the course of a whole day and 40-50% energy recovery for the whole array during periods of shading. We're now in the second phase of our field trials and getting ready for UL certification, and we expect to generate first sales in this new growth thrust in calendar Q1 of 2009."

Seems the know-how that's gone into the new solar product may have legs for another sector in the renewable energy space, according to the company prez. "We're now aiming to leverage this power management intellectual property that we used in our SolarMagic capability to address high-voltage battery-charging storage management, for example as used in electric vehicles."

When an analyst asked Macleod about "the new market opportunities" and "sizing the solar market," and then sought help in "understanding the gross margin in ASPs of these new markets relative to the core business," he deferred to Halla, who hinted at a possible pricing approach for SolarMagic.

"In terms of solar, typically people think of semiconductors as a cost-plus kind of pricing.... Typical panels are about $800 or $900 a panel to get 200 watts in the panel, and then the installation kind of doubles that. Now we just talked about SolarMagic in terms of the technology that can restore 40-50% of the power lost in an individual panel over the course of a day, 10-20% recovery of all the energy lost due to clouding and other things. So if we can recover 10-20%, it seems very reasonable to me that the price we might put on one of our SolarMagic modules could easily be 10-20% the price of a panel. We won't talk about it terms of cost-plus but in terms of the value that we add."

Once field testing wraps, UL signs off on the certification, and the first SolarMagic boxes are sold next year, we'll start to have a better idea of just how much value the new PV-oriented product line will add to National's bottom line and whether Halla and his troops will keep those sunny smiles on their mugs.

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