SunPower Executives: Central solar-power plants coming soon

SunPower Executives: Central solar-power plants coming soonThe coming years are key to the success of the solar industry as it grows into maturation. Companies like SunPower are now preparing to become full-fledged alternatives to fossil fuel-fired and nuclear power plants. Senior SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWRA, SPWRB) executives spoke with Clean Energy Authority and other media members this week about how solar will play out as it reaches a new stage of development.

SunPower now produces the most efficient commercially available photovoltaics. It’s also a leading global installer of commercial and utility-scale photovoltaics.

The discussion was part of a media day in which we were invited to tour a manufacturing facility that’s helping the company reach its production goals and partook in a hands-on demonstration of how the company’s solar panels are installed.

In a sentiment reflected at the Intersolar North America conference, SunPower President Emeritus Richard Swanson said one of the key issues is cost reduction.

“I really do think that one of the big issues facing us a community is bridging between where we are today, which in the U.S. is dependent on subsidies, to where we don't need any subsidies and helping cross that chasm. To do that it's really important for policy makers to understand the issues that face the energy sector,” he said. “For example, with global warming, we’re trying get our arms around how we're going to treat that as a global society.”

But the negative press from skeptics also is an outsized voice that’s impacting the wider spread of solar, according to Swanson.

“It seems to me almost a concerted effort on part of certain industries or media to distort or discredit solar. I don't understand it. It'd be great to have some clarity,” he said.

For instance, Power Hungry, a book by Wall Street Journal contributor Robert Bryce, contended that the average power density in a solar plant is 6.7 watts per square meter, while nuclear power plants had an average power density of 50 to 60 watts per square meter. But when Swanson did research into the sources, he claims he found the information unverifiable.

However, Christina Honsberg, a professor with the University of Arizona’s Global Institute of Sustainability found that photovoltaic plants produce more energy per unit area than nuclear, when they’re compared, according to Swanson.

Emerging markets are also appearing, according to Swanson.

“I do think everyone is very excited about the new emerging markets that are being enabled by lower costs, where we're not necessarily seeing tremendous governmental support from an incentive point of view,” he said. “But the markets are actually closer to viable without incentives. Certainly the Middle East is coming up that way.”

Other emerging markets are in Northern Africa, South America, and SunPower’s excited about its relationship with Toshiba in Japan, Swanson said.

“Certainly, everyone thinks India is going to be a big market. It's still kind of early stage in terms of how it's going to shake out,” he said. “We expect it to happen, we’re just not sure when.”

Photo: Chris Meehan / Clean Energy Authority.