Industrial PRIME is driving towards the beautiful city of San José. We can’t help feeling envious of the city’s three hundred sunny days a year. That is nearly twice as many as in our homeland, where the winters can get slightly extreme: sometimes, you can count the number of sunshine hours during an entire month with your fingers. And that is not a joke.
Not only known for its fantastic weather and awfully friendly people, San José, the 10th largest city by population in the United States, is also the Mecca for technology industries and the capital of the renowned Silicon Valley.
We are heading for a meeting with a company that is ready to change the world at a time when change is most desperately needed.
While much of the technology sector’s attention has been focused on opportunities such as ICT and mobile phones, SunPower has been concentrating on solar innovation. Ever since its establishment in 1985, the company has been focused on offering solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, and is today the global leader in its line of business. Coincident with its 30th anniversary this year, SunPower recently completed the design and construction of nothing less than the largest operating solar PV farm in the world.
We were lucky and managed to set up an interview with SunPower President and CEO Tom Werner at SunPower headquarters.
As soon as we enter the premises and meet Mr Werner, it becomes clear that we are going to be educated – big time.
“Solar is disrupting the way the world gets energy, and SunPower is at the forefront of that,” Werner states. Then he pauses, before dropping the real punch: “And we are just at the beginning.”
Some might consider these words bold. They were, after all, uttered by a man working for perhaps one of the most maligned industries in the world. But Mr Werner is here to tell us that the game has changed. And when he talks, he exudes confidence.
What on earth is cooking?
A Booming Industry
Not so long ago, the solar industry was a business so small that it was probably saved from a great deal of ridicule simply because so many people didn’t even know it existed.
However, great changes have taken place in the solar business over the last decade, and it is SunPower that stands out as having the most efficient solar panels in the world.
Featuring their own Maxeon cell technology, SunPower’s premium panels convert more sunlight to energy than those offered by anyone else. The Maxeon cell itself is a technological triumph but, at the solar power plants that SunPower has built around the world, these high-performance panels are also mounted on SunPower tracking technology that rotates the panels to follow the sun throughout the day for maximum energy output.
According to Mr Werner, SunPower divides its clients into three segments, residential, commercial, and utility, with clients in all three segments all across the globe.
“We are seeing a huge demand for rooftop solar in the US and Japan, whereas in China, the utility-scale business is booming,” Werner illustrates. “China is now the world’s biggest solar market – in fact, it is bigger than the next three markets combined.”
In recent years, fewer utility-scale solar systems have been constructed in Europe. Instead, the vast majority of SunPower’s European clients fall into the categories of either residential or commercial.
The last year has also witnessed interest in a new approach to securing megawatts of emission-free solar power: off-site solar power plants for customers such as universities and commercial entities who don’t have available land to adequately serve their ambitious renewable energy goals.
Stanford University is one example of this kind of solar customer. SunPower is building a 68-megawatt plant hundreds of miles from the university’s campus. On its completion, combined with five megawatts of planned on-campus rooftop SunPower systems, solar will provide more than 50% of Stanford’s total electricity use.
Considering its impressive, diversified portfolio of more than 5.8 gigawatts of rooftop and ground-mounted solar installations around the world, it hardly comes as a surprise that SunPower is also involved in Solar Star, the world’s largest operating solar PV power plant.
Completed this year, Solar Star covers an area of 13 square kilometres (about five square miles) in Kern and Los Angeles Counties in California. Using 1.7 million solar panels built by SunPower, the record-breaking 579-megawatt solar installation provides enough electricity to power as many as 255,000 homes. Solar Star is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, underscoring the sound investment prospects for solar and SunPower.
Impressed, we ask Mr Werner if this is as large as a solar farm can get. Or will even bigger solar installations be built in the future?
“In the United States, unlikely. In China, possibly.”
And if yes, is SunPower going to be involved?
Coming Up: Total Control over Your Energy Bill
As always, Industrial PRIME is curious about the future. What has SunPower been up to recently? What can we expect to see in the coming few years?
According to Mr Werner, SunPower is investing meaningful amounts of money – over USD 50 million a year – in advancing the energy solutions available to their customers. The focus is on “making the complex simple” and helping customers take control of energy usage and costs.
“Today, most energy users just passively pay the electricity bill they receive in the mail,” Werner points out. “They don’t really think of it as a decision, they just pay it. SunPower is determined to change this.”
“Elegantly designed and engineered complete solutions offering solar, storage, and energy management will give our customers total control over their energy bill,” says Werner. “It will allow them to reliably generate renewable energy, manage it to reduce their electricity bills, and store it for use in a power outage or at night.”
Mr Werner has been working for SunPower since 2003. Prior to joining the company, he held the position of chief executive officer of Silicon Light Machines, Inc., an optical solutions subsidiary of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation. He says moving to SunPower was a very good move.
“My timing really couldn’t have been any better,” he says, pointing towards a chart demonstrating the tremendous growth of the industry during the past ten-odd years.
Global installed PV capacity has been growing exponentially, exceeding all estimates. In 2014, the cumulative global photovoltaic capacity increased by 28%, reaching 178 gigawatts. More than a billion solar panels have already been installed worldwide, and it is estimated that the capacity will keep growing at a considerable rate.
“We are really starting to make a difference here. We are changing the way our world is powered.”
Tom Werner is confident about the business he represents. Even though the share of global PV capacity of the world’s total energy production is still modest, the capacity is expected to keep growing at a considerable rate.
Busting the Naysayers’ Myths
SunPower is headquartered in California, a US state known for its achievements in renewable energy and leading-edge policies addressing climate change. Why is it that California has been doing so well?
“I’d say people in California believe in fighting climate change and they believe that renewable energy is the solution to the problem,” Werner says. “So they elect officials and legislators who believe that as well. You see, if you ask people where they would prefer their energy to come from, coal or the sun, the vast majority will pick the sun.”
So, California’s legislators agree to have solar-friendly policies because that is what their people want?
“That is how democracy works. And in our democracy, solar is an established and fast-growing business, creating jobs and significant economic development.”
Mr Werner sounds positive, but having said that, he refers to naysayers that “cling to the past” and still think that solar is unaffordable and unreliable.
“The facts are simply not supporting such claims anymore,” he continues. “Point one: solar did cost too much – 15 years ago. It took stable, long-term government policies by states like California and countries such as Germany and Japan to lead the way in creating a global market that has resulted in solar becoming cost-competitive with traditional sources of energy in many parts of the world today. The mainstreaming of solar is very much real.”
“Point two: solar PV technology is proven and reliable, and there are technologies available today to manage and store power, further enhancing its reliability and value.”
As a result of the increased global adoption of solar and the subsequent reductions in cost, solar is now competitive in many regions with traditional energy sources like coal and gas peaking plants on a levelized cost of energy basis. Solar has indeed already become so cost-effective that more and more countries are realizing that it can be economic.
“The electricity industry is a $4 trillion industry,” says Werner. “The amount of investment in solar in the next 20 years is going to be incredibly large – as much as $5 trillion. The business opportunities for solar are massive, and all the big traditional electricity supply chains are really going to need to become involved.”
The current global photovoltaic capacity is roughly the equivalent of 1% of the world’s total electricity consumption. It doesn’t sound like much, but if the industry keeps growing as it is estimated to, solar energy can no longer be regarded with disdain.
To save itself and the Earth, it looks like mankind may just need to turn to the power (and the business) of the Sun.
Text and images by Industrial PRIME
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