Semiconductors: The Forgotten (but essential) Green Technology  

The following text was published by The Hill Times here
July 27, 2023: The Government of Canada placed a big bet on green technologies and clean power in Budget 2023. “Green technology” is a broad definition. We all know what being green and clean looks like, but which innovations get us there. The backbone of any technology that will get us to net zero is not what you might think. 

Semiconductors are probably not top of mind when you think about green technologies. EVs powered by renewables such as wind and solar are probably closer to the top of your list, and with good reason as these are visible, tangible applications. Semiconductors – the ubiquitous microchips that power applications ranging from your smartphone to telecommunications and defence infrastructure – can also be instrumental in getting us to green and clean. Here’s how. 

Canada needs more electricity 

Canada’s Energy Regulator projects electricity demand to increase nearly 50% by 2050. Much of this new power is expected to come from renewable sources such as wind and solar which continue to become easier to produce at lower cost. 

Renewable energy generation does not work the same way as thermal power (coal, gas) or even hydroelectric plants. Fluctuations in output, due to the intermittent nature of some renewable energy sources means that the excess electricity generated must therefore be stored, so it is available for use later. This balancing act requires advanced, chip-based technologies to ensure that power is stable, reliable, and available on demand.  

Semiconductors make and deliver solar power 

Solar panels are essentially giant semiconductors. Even before a chip-based system can figure out the best way to transfer and store power, light can only be converted into electricity by going through silicon wafer semiconductor devices. The efficiency of this conversion is critical to power output and keeping overall costs low.  

Semiconductors make things smart 

Smart grids and efficient energy management systems are also made possible by semiconductor technologies. By integrating sensors and control systems with power grids, semiconductors facilitate real-time monitoring and optimization of energy distribution. Maximizing efficiency will be crucial as demand soars and supply takes time to come online. 

EVs are semiconductors on wheels 

Electric vehicles (EVs) are probably the most accessible, practical greentech investments consumers can make. Improved performance, lower cost, cool features, and soaring gasoline prices are strong incentives to make the switch (as illustrated by long wait lists for new EV deliveries). EVs contain roughly double the number of semiconductors as comparable internal combustion powered models.    

Canada has an advantage 

Canada has a vibrant semiconductor industry producing world-class design and development work thanks to a well-trained workforce of Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP). We are known for high value-add, innovative technologies such as exotic compound semiconductors which are essential for high power applications such as EV charging and solar power converters.  

These, and other semiconductor technologies for specialized applications are key for green technologies and Canada’s semiconductor space.    

The Government of Canada is beginning to rollout greentech investments announced in Budget 2023. One major investment in EV battery manufacturing is finalized, while another is close. These are important steps to jump start Canada’s low-carbon economy. Let’s be optimistic that Ottawa invests in our domestic semiconductor industry and the role it can play in the green revolution. 

Gordon Harling is President and CEO of CMC Microsystems 

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