Solar Cells Info

Your Ad Here

Pagevisits since Nov. 8,2006:

The Long and Winding Solar Road: Q&A With SunPower’s Dick Swanson

November 30th, 2008 by kalyan89 in Press Releases, Reports, PV-General, R&D reports

Richard Swanson, SunPower’s President, says there is no equivalent of Moore’s Law in solar, but other things work in the industry’s favor.
by: Ucilia Wang, November 26, 2008

Solar CEOs like to complain these days about the lack of capital and the difficulty of getting their companies off the ground.  They should talk to Richard Swanson. As a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford in the 70s and 80s, he emerged as a leader in solar research. He co-founded SunPower back in 1985 to capitalize on the growing interest in alternative energy. Still, the company lived from project to project until Cypress Semiconductor invested $150 million into the company in 2002.

Now, of course, SunPower is one of the leaders of the industry. It makes the most efficient solar cells (22 percent) on the market. The company (NDSQ: SPWRA) also develops solar power plants and signed a 250-megawatt deal with Pacific Gas and Electric earlier this year (see PG&E to Buy 800MW From OptiSolar, SunPower).  Greentech Media caught up with Swanson during an event to dedicate a 185-kilowatt system at the Technology Museum of Innovation in San Jose last week. SunPower developed and oversaw the installation of the project, which features 803 rooftop panels.

Q: What was a big break for SunPower during its early years?
A: Our first big customer was Honda [in 1996] to develop a solar powered racecar. They came to us and say we know you make the most efficient solar cells, can you make them enough to cover a car. It was a tear-shaped car with cells integrated into the body. Very high tech. Very aerodynamic. It could go 90 miles an hour on solar power. They went on to win the race across Australia. In fact they beat the second-place winner by a day.
That put us on the map. Too bad the race was only once every three years. It wasn’t very much of a supporting business for SunPower.

Q: But it took many more years to finally find a believer in Cypress?
A: The mainstream solar companies like BP and Shell kind of ignored or dismissed us. They didn’t think that SunPower would be anything other than a manufacturer of specialty products. It was expensive when we made them in a small factory in Sunnyvale. It wasn’t until we brought the manufacturing know-how of the chip industry that we drove down the cost.

Q: Do you think how BP and Shell thought of SunPower is how most people in the solar industry view thin-film solar technologies, which are largely in the early stages of commercialization?
A: Thin-film hasn’t quite happened yet. Maybe it can demonstrate that soon. We of course have lots of friends in the thin-film industry, and we watch them closely and root them on.

Q: Is SunPower interested in developing its own thin-film technology or buy a thin-film company?
A: We are interesting in everything. SunPower also is a larger purchaser of solar panels. We buy panels from other companies for developing power plants because we have more demand than supply. We could purchase thin-films for our plants.

Q: What were some technical hurdles to overcome when SunPower first entered the solar market?
A: Back then the market was very much smaller, so the people who were doing this were pioneers. They tried to figure out how to mount panels on the roof, for example. We merged with a company called PowerLight that made a breakthrough in that area. They realized that for a flat commercial roof, you didn’t need to bolt panels to the roof. This array here [at the Tech Museum] was installed in three days. It would’ve taken weeks and weeks to install with the old method. There have been breakthroughs all across the value chain, starting with refining silicon. The more we do it, the more the price comes down.