SunPower expanding internationally

SunPower partnered with Toshiba to distribute panels in JapanSunPower Corp. is aggressively expanding into international markets, including China, Japan, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East.

The California company announced this week that it financed 33 megawatts of solar in South Africa, a relatively new market for the high-efficiency solar panel manufacturer.

As the cost of solar drops relative to the cost of traditional power generation, solar makes sense in a lot of places around the world where it might not have in the past, said SunPower CEO Tom Werner.

“Because of our scale, we’re able to go into these countries and become market makers,” Werner said.

That means SunPower isn’t waiting for a country to decide it needs solar and offer subsidies or incentives. The company is going in and building a market for solar where there wasn’t one before.

“We just signed a four-way joint venture agreement to create a solar market in China,” Werner said.

SunPower announced at the beginning of December that it joined forces with Tianjin Zhonghuan Semiconductor, Inner Mongolia Power Group and Hohhot Jinqiao City Development Company to build a Chinese solar market. Each company contributed $15 million and has an equal share in the business.

But SunPower’s explosive growth in the Japanese market might be the bigger story. The company partnered with Toshiba for distribution there and Japan will account for 10 percent of SunPower’s total revenue in 2013, Werner said. The market there was strong in 2012, but with Japan’s adoption of a feed-in-tariff, solar is expected to become increasingly popular. And SunPower is well-positioned to benefit from that market growth.

“They have small buildings and small rooftops,” Werner said. “They need highly efficient solar with a small footprint and that’s exactly what we supply.”

That market is no accident. Werner said SunPower was there, planting the seeds for this growth five years ago.

“SunPower has always believed it needed to diversify and seeded several different markets,” Werner said.

The company is working on building a market in Saudi Arabia and some other Middle Eastern countries now that it believes will begin to see activity in 2015.

SunPower also bought a 42 percent share in Australia’s Diamond Energy. Like Texas, Australia lets consumers buy electricity on a retail market from whatever provider they prefer. The shares of Diamond Energy allow SunPower to sell a complete solar energy package to consumers.

“They can finance their solar installations on their electric bill,” Werner said.

SunPower is a U.S. company. And while the U.S. is a growing market, SunPower has found that its ultra-high-efficiency solar and continuing cost reduction make it attractive all over the world and its strategically building and international reputation.

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