A Unique Test For Solar

10/09/2016 08:45 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2016
SunPower

When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met for their first debate at Hofstra University last month, it took less than 20 minutes for solar energy to become a topic of the discussion.

“We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels,” said Secretary Clinton. “We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That's a lot of jobs; that's a lot of new economic activity.”

I agree. Fortunately, we’re already on our way.

While renewables account for seven percent of our nation’s electric generation, recent estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that additions of utility scale solar – the large solar farms that power thousands of home and businesses – will exceed those from any other energy source. To put this in context, EIA projects that 9.5 gigawatts (GW) of utility-scale solar will be added this year alone, compared with 3.1 GW last year and 9.4 GW total from 2013 through 2015. And, when it comes to homes and businesses, the U.S. exceeded one million installations earlier this year.

A public opinion survey by Pew Research Center just found nearly nine out of 10 Americans support expanding solar.

For many, it’s difficult to fully grasp the extent and speed of the transformation that is happening in the clean energy sector, particularly solar. Costs are coming down at an unprecedented rate. In many parts of the country and the world, we’ve achieved grid parity, which means the cost of solar is equal or less than buying energy off the electrical grid. In a few months, we’ll mark the one-year anniversary of the historic COP21 agreement. This is all good news.

However, the more challenging aspect of today’s solar market is rooted in a few factors beyond industry’s control, including short term disruptions from the recently extended Investment Tax Credit, as well as a supply/demand mismatch.

Our industry has been through a number of ups and downs. I’ve helped navigate our company through many of them over the past 13 years. What makes this period of uncertainty unique is that it comes in the midst of an unprecedented worldwide shift to solar adoption. Five years ago, costs were significantly higher than they are now. A year ago, we didn’t have a commitment on the part of 195 nations that we have today.

No one company or individual is going to shift the world to solar power. Therefore, it’s up to solar industry leaders to help transform the market through what we can control: technology and innovation, the pursuit of IP, the cultivation of talent, and responsiveness to customers’ energy needs and goals. In short, we have a lasting foundation and, for all intents and purposes, the world’s support to lead the way to a clean energy future. Let’s build on it.

For starters, leading companies should continue to innovate by improving the cost of energy, efficiency and ease of use. Today, SunPower holds the world record in the lab for large-area high efficiency silicon solar panels: 24.1 percent (1). Just a few years ago, this number would have been relevant mostly in the laboratory where it was first accomplished. Today, however, it’s about enabling much more energy to be produced in any given space. This is a tipping point for energy and infrastructure priorities broadly.

Equally important, leaders in solar should prioritize the development of Intellectual Property (IP) as central to long-term viability. For decades, we’ve seen the high-tech, semiconductor and biopharmaceutical sectors consistently at or near the top of the list for patent filings, which has resulted in countless inventions benefitting society. Through R&D, innovative partnerships and acquisitions, solar can take a page from high-tech and other sectors that recognize the multi-faceted value of IP. As an example, SunPower has been awarded more than 600 patents over the past 30 years and they’re core to the technology we’re developing every day.

Finally, we must cultivate the innovators of today and tomorrow: namely, employees and customers. The recent growth in solar wouldn’t be possible without individuals who constantly questioned the status quo, as well as the end users willing to take risks and up-end a centuries-old mindset on how to best source energy. Companies and organizations like Apple, Bed Bath & Beyond, Macy’s, Stanford University, and Toyota to name just a few. We’ll only achieve the ambitious goals for the future by seeking out those who are willing to keep looking around the corner for what comes next.

As 2017 approaches, it’s fair to say that solar is undergoing a unique test. I have no doubt that leaders who embrace the core fundamentals will thrive. At that point, a half billion more solar panels won’t just be a worthwhile challenge, but a stop on our way to a billion installed. The world is expecting it.

Tom Werner serves as president and CEO of the Silicon Valley-based SunPower Corporation, which provides clean energy through residential, commercial and power plant solar installations worldwide.

1. Green, M. A., et. al. “Solar Cell Efficiency Tables (version 48),” Progress in Photovoltaics, 2016

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