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Energy at a Tipping Point: Part 2 – SunPower’s Dr. Richard Swanson on the Future of PV Solar

Thomas Schueneman | Tuesday November 25th, 2008 | 2 Comments

SunPower founder Dr. Richard Swanson sees a bright future for PV solarThis post continues my reveiw of some key points from the discusion forum I attended earlier this month “After the Election: Where is Clean Energy Headed Now?” hosted by TiE at their Silicon Valley headquarters. My last post focused on the presentation by Chris Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute. In this post we’ll review what SunPower founder and current President and Chief Technical Officer Dr. Richard Swanson had to say to the crowd of venture capitalists, investors, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
A megawatt a day keeps the coal man at bay
As could be expected, Dr. Swanson is bullish on solar PV, not only for SunPower, but for the industry as a whole, even given the pernicious uncertainties in the general economy. With the rapid growth of PV (30 to 40% annnually worldwide) and increasing R&D investment, Swanson is looking for the next few years to bring more breakthroughs in the price and efficiency of PV solar systems.
According to Swanson, half the current cost of a solar system is in its installation. Streamlining this process by increasing system assembly efficiency and utilizing non-penetrating foundations for ground-based panels helps bring costs down and enables SunPower to install 1 megawatt a day of solar PV, from factory to field.
These efforts, combined with ongoing research and development in continuous ingot growth, thinner solar wafers, and solar tracking of panels for better ulitization of solar energy throughout the day (we reported of such an system SunPower installed for Gap Stores back in October), are some aspects by which Swanson sees SunPower meeting its target objectives of 60% in cost reduction and 23% efficiency increase in PV solar by 2012.


The view ahead for PV solar
In addition to the industry’s increasing efficiencies and lowered costs, Dr. Swanson looks to key global partnerships with utilities and industry, a new administration pledging aggressive support and investment in renewable energy, and the recent (if last minute) extension of renewable energy tax credits as among the most promising signs of continued growth for PV solar.
Even though the renewable energy tax credits came late in the game, after failing to pass on eight previous attempts, Swanson said “We got everything we wanted”, including a 30% extension for eight years for commercial and residential installations, an elimination of the cap for residential systems, and an allowance for utilities to benefit from the credits.
Looking ahead, Swanson hopes (and expects) the Obama administration will push for a national Renewable Portfolio Standard (pdf), net metering, a National Interconnect Standard and continuing the trend for the federal government to buy PV solar systems.
Of all this, it is the passage of the renewable energy tax credits and the compound growth of innovation in the industry that is setting the stage for future of renewable energy.
The economy is obviously a concern for everyone, but overall Swanson sees the challenges as a good thing in the long run. To be sure there is a shake-out coming, and some companies aren’t going to make it. It will require capital efficiency as well as technical innovation to help reduce investor risk, but Swanson sees the rise in fossil fuel (the recent – and temporary – decline in oil prices notwithstanding) combined with the steadily declining costs of PV solar, aided by the oncoming policy momentum of a new administration in Washington, as one key solution to the global economic crisis.
The United States playing catch-up
U.S.-based companies like SunPower are taking huge strides in the global renewable marketplace, but unfortunately, at least at the federal level, the United States has dropped the ball in R&D for PV solar. Countries such as India and China have overtaken the U.S in PV production, at least until very recently.
As recently as two years ago, the federal government had only two scientists working on silicon solar cell research. That is changing with projects such as the Solar American Initiative from the Department of Energy – with a stated goal of supplying ” electricity from PV cost-competitive with conventional forms of electricity from the utility grid by 2015″ – but not a moment too soon.
The good news in terms of grid parity is that it often isn’t that important for utilities utilizing PV for intermediate peaking plants (pdf), which can already be cheaper than a gas-fired peaking plant.
Whatever may have been lost from poor leadership in the past, an entrenched mindset favoring the fossil fuel economy without regard for its conesquences, and a beleaguered economy facing ongoing recession, solar power and all forms of alternative and renewable energy stand as the way forward. There is a new president and a new outlook to what is possible, and indeed necessary, to forge from the mistakes of the past and misfortunes of the present a sustainable future.
Key projects
Following is a brief list of some key projects and partnerships SunPower is currently involved in or has recently completed:


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  • Uncle B

    The magic word little understood when speaking solar energy is “renewable” The concept of a flow of energy, for free, forever – yes, perpetual! as in perpetual motion the mad dream of physics! but we have it now! Set up a solar electric plant in a sunny spot in the desert, and for the maintenance costs only, kazzamb! perpetual power for America! no big oil ships, no nasty Arab wars to fight, no dirty international politics, no carcinogenic benzine rings to cause breast cancers, no filthy smoke and CO2 to ruin our planet, no shortages, no price fluctuations, no dirty fumes, and it is ours, no strings attached! I think if we start calling Solar, wind, wave, and ground heat energies “perpetual” as well as renewable, they may gain more acceptance! This is more of a paradigm shift in North American conceptual powers, not a sales job! It has more to do with how English has been taught in our schools over our ability to understand and grasp true meaning. So, from now on “perpetual” energies directly from Mother Nature!

  • http://conservationvalue.blogspot.com Jon Gelbard

    Great pair of articles, Tom. Thanks for the summaries!