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Tina Casey headshot

For Solar Manufacturer SunPower, Renewables Are Only a Beginning

By Tina Casey

Companies in the renewable energy field already have a head start on corporate social responsibility, at least when it comes to fostering the sustainable energy transition. Some companies in this sector are also going above and beyond. The California-based solar panel manufacturer SunPower is one company that demonstrates how clean technology leaders can leverage their position to achieve broader social impact.

Renewable energy leadership in Baja California

In the latest development, SunPower has donated 10 percent of the 3,000 solar panels that will go into two new solar arrays in Baja California. The new solar arrays will be built on the Mexicali and Tijuana campuses of Mexico’s CETYS University, a private, non-profit institution.

Though weighing in at a relatively modest combined capacity of 1.2 megawatts, the CETYS project is positioned as a powerful clean energy catalyst for Baja California and beyond.

In a public statement, Dr. Isaac Azuz Adeath, research coordinator at the school’s College of Engineering, observed that the project “sets a new Latin American standard for the contributions colleges and universities can make in the fight against climate change.”

Dr. Adeath was not exaggerating. At 3,000 panels, the project represents the largest renewable energy initiative in Mexico, and all of Latin America, to be undertaken by a university.

CETYS University president Dr. Fernando Leon Garcia also emphasized the importance of academic institutions leading on renewable energy.

“Universities have an opportunity and an obligation to lead on climate change,” he said. “Sustainability is central to who we are as an institution and projects like this reflect our mission of preparing professionals with a clear sense of environmental stewardship.”

A boost for renewable energy engineering

The decision to donate solar panels CETYS was a logical one for SunPower.

SunPower opened its first solar panel manufacturing plant in 2011, in Mexicali. With sunny Baja California poised for a renewable energy boom, the donation will help SunPower maintain a high profile in the region. That’s especially important as the company pivots away from its former focus on utility-scale projects to emphasize distributed energy resources and energy storage.

In addition, CETYS is known for its renewable energy engineering track, which emphasizes “eco-efficient” product design and self-sustaining projects.

Solar panels and the circular economy

SunPower’s management of its Mexicali facility also dovetails with the school’s emphasis on sustainable design and its attention to lifecycle issues in the renewable energy field.

In 2016, SunPower helped to launch the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 initiative. The Mexicali plant has earned a “Landfill Free” certification from the National Sanitation Foundation, and the company has a Cradle-to-Cradle Certified Silver award in its pocket for two solar panels manufactured at the plant, the SunPower-branded E-Series and X-Series.

Renewable energy as a social good

SunPower also has an eye out for broader impacts beyond Mexico.

In one recent example, earlier this year SunPower launched a $1,000 solar rebate program for Sierra Club members and supporters, with the company pledging an additional $1,000 donated to the Sierra Club for each SunPower system purchased under the rebate plan.

SunPower’s commitment to the circular economy and its activities in the LEED field factored into Sierra Club’s decision to forge a partnership with the company.

SunPower is also involved in sustainable supply chain initiatives, and its “Light on Land” initiative gives preference to developing solar arrays on landfills, overgrazed rangeland, brownfields and other non-pristine sites. As part of this program, the company replants solar sites with native grasses and plants and uses also allows sheep to graze across some of these sites to keep vegetation under control.

On the other end of the income scale, in 2015 SunPower won a Patents for Humanity award from the U.S. Patent and Trademark office for a business model that makes it seamless for people in destitute communities acquire solar power for lighting, cooking and heating.

The renewable energy transition

CETYS is not the only academic institution to benefit from SunPower’s CSR policies. The company offers a standing discount to schools and universities, and it also offers a range of solar education programs for students in kindergarten on up through college, as well as professional development for educators.

With this in mind, it’s worth noting that the France-based multinational oil and gas giant Total was an early investor in SunPower.

The relationship enables Total to claim a foothold in the circular economy alongside innovative companies seeking a more sustainable future, like Dell, Ball Corporation and UPS.

Though Total continues to ramp up its core businesses, earlier this month it announced the launch of its second utility scale solar power plant in Japan — using SunPower solar panels, of course.

To date, Total’s plans for transitioning its operations do not seem particularly ambitious. The current goal of moving 15 to 20 percent of its electricity related sales to “low carbon” sources by 2040 includes natural gas within its low carbon category.

Nevertheless, a lot could change between now and 2040. SunPower’s educational programs, and its profile-building work with academic institutions like CETYS, could help lure the next generation of energy innovators away from fossil fuels and into careers that promise the opportunity to contribute to a sustainable future.

Image credit: CETYS

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey