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Are We Moving Fast Enough on Semiconductor Sustainability?

We continue to deal with a paradox: semiconductor chips are necessary to support digitalization and society’s transition to lower carbon power and transportation. At the same time, semiconductor manufacturing is resource- and energy-intensive. Efficiency improvements are one part of the solution, but they can only take us so far. There’s work to be done to achieve semiconductor sustainability. 

What does our industry need to do to reduce absolute greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to a level compatible with a 1.5 °C rise in global temperature? The answers point to significant challenges. Are we willing and able to completely change some of our processes? That remains to be seen.

Where We Are

SEMI’s Semiconductor Climate Consortium (SCC) is bringing the industry together to discuss environmental issues. As of November 2023, 88 companies have joined as members. The SCC’s 2023 report, Transparency, Ambition, and Collaboration: Advancing the Climate Agenda of the Semiconductor Value Chain, outlines the current situation and opportunities for improvement.

As the report notes, larger companies have been working on reducing GHG emissions, increasing the use of renewable energy sources, and improving water and waste management for years. Water recovery systems are established throughout the industry and continue to improve.

Still, progress is not fast enough. Even if companies achieve their pledged emissions reductions, the industry is not on target to reach science-based targets for a 1.5°C global temperature rise. Absolute emissions are still going up, in large part due to industry growth. They are not forecast to drop until at least 2030.

I applaud SEMI for gathering companies to collaborate on sustainability initiatives. Awareness is one of the first steps; the report lays out how things look. Everyone in the industry should read it and consider how their company can address its shortcomings in any of the areas the report highlights.

Awareness and discussion are only the first steps, however. We need more aggressive action. We need all companies throughout the supply chain to invest in improvements. That will require changes in design, materials, and processes, increasing R&D expenditure. Those expenses need to be seen as investments in the future of the companies, our industry, and society.

Looking at Progress

As the SCC report and other analyses have noted, energy use is the change that will make the most difference. That includes switching to renewable electricity to power fabs and other manufacturing facilities and reducing energy consumption. Many companies are already doing this.

Some goals seem overly modest, however. For example, according to its latest sustainability report, ASE pledges to decrease annual power consumption by “more than 2 percent” by 2030. We can look at that and wonder why they can’t do more. There’s more to the story, though. In 2022, 87 percent of the company’s facilities used some renewable energy.

ASE plans to more than double the percentage of its energy that comes from renewable sources. That’s encouraging, but the starting point is 19 percent. Some companies—Intel, Samsung, and others—are already at 100 percent renewables. But many are far behind that. It will take a lot to get the entire industry to 100 percent.

This is merely one example. I could comb through sustainability reports and gather dozens more. The upshot is that companies are doing the work to set goals and report on progress toward them. At the same time, the goals could be more aggressive to encourage revolutionary changes rather than incremental improvements.

Are Our Hands Tied?

The semiconductor industry faces fundamental limitations in transitioning to renewable power and removing gases with high global warming potential (GWP) from the manufacturing process. Intermittent electricity sources like solar and wind need to be combined with energy storage or other backup sources. Island nations have limited land area for building up solar power. But they also might not be using all the resources available to them.

Process gases remain a major source of Scope 1 emissions. There are some applications where alternatives exist and many where they currently do not. Abatement techniques limit the release of these gases into the atmosphere, but they are not foolproof. A small proportion of gases still escape. The path forward to eliminate the worst-offending gases is not clear. But that doesn’t mean we should give up.

Most GHG emissions associated with our industry’s products happen during use. We cannot directly influence how end users power their computers, data centers, or automobiles. But we can design semiconductor chips and packages to be as energy-efficient as possible. We can also support improvements in renewable energy in the countries where our facilities operate. That may come from purchasing credits or investing in building renewable power infrastructure.

One point from the SEMI report that people might have overlooked is the call for advocacy. Manufacturers, especially in Asian countries where renewable energy is limited but also elsewhere, should advocate for expanding low-carbon electricity options. If the demand is there, the supply is more likely to follow.

Smaller Companies Making Progress

The actions of smaller companies—those with fewer than 1000 employees—don’t always make headlines. Our industry needs these companies, many of which make materials and components that contribute to the Scope 3 emissions of the prominent industry leaders, to step up. Fortunately, some are moving sustainability further up the list of priorities.

Namics, for example, is investing in solar farms in Japan and plans to build a solar canopy over the parking lot at its new headquarters building. Brewer Science purchases enough wind energy credits to cover all the energy consumption at its US facilities. The company’s electricity consumption has remained constant despite growth. 

Namics and Brewer Science are among the materials suppliers reporting on GHG emissions, energy consumption, and water and waste management. We need more data, along with concerted efforts to promote science-based targets, from every supplier in the industry.

The Path Forward

Increasing energy efficiency and transitioning to renewables are the easiest levers to pull and will make the quickest difference. We also need to invest in changes in materials and processes. The journey will take years or perhaps decades. There are ways to accelerate it. That includes supporting promising startups that are innovating in areas like waste recovery, new materials, and energy efficiency.

De-coupling economic growth from energy and resource consumption is something our industry will need to embrace. That’s not easy, especially when faced with materiality assessments that show environmental issues lagging behind economic concerns. That can make GHG emissions reductions and better waste management not feel like immediate priorities. Unless customers care deeply enough about their vendors’ and suppliers’ sustainability records, change is likely not to happen fast enough. A few companies are being proactive and sharing their progress. Here’s to hoping that more join in.

This article first appeared in the 2024 3D InCites Yearbook. Find the complete issue here.


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