Richard Swanson

The solar energy pioneer predicts that the price of photovoltaic panels will fall and more homes and businesses will use them.

Experts predict that in 20 years, solar power will fulfill more than 20% of the country's energy needs, up from less than 1% today. The companies leading solar technology development, such as SunPower Corp., are poised to become the new titans of Silicon Valley. Richard Swanson, SunPower's founder, president and chief technical officer, holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University and has been instrumental in developing the technology. Although SunPower focuses on utility, business and residential uses, its cells were used by NASA in the first solar-powered aircraft, which reached a height of 96,863 feet.

The idea of using solar power to produce electricity in the home and having the ability to monitor and manage it, and sell the excess back to the utility, has strong appeal. Can you make a compelling case for a home solar energy retrofit? In many areas of the country, it is cash-flow-positive from Day One, basically. It represents a really great investment, whether you put the money in yourself or finance it from some of the mechanisms that are available. An average simple payback might be on the order of seven years. That sounds like a lot of time, but if you think of it in terms of interest rate, it's essentially equivalent to a 14% CD in terms of return on investment. It carries with it the knowledge that are you are helping reduce the carbon footprint.

What is the price/performance ratio of solar panels today? At the end of the day, what's important is the cost of energy being produced, and efficiency is an important contributor. If the panel is more efficient, it will occupy less land, and you will have less infrastructure to support the panels and less glass -- so it's an important parameter to the calculus of this whole thing, but it's not the endpoint by any means. It's the cost of the energy. The real action is in reducing the cost of the panel, not increasing the output of the panel.

How are you reducing the cost of the panel? We are reducing at all points in the value chain, starting with the silicon. We use highly refined silicon, which is fairly expensive material. But the cost of that is coming down as the size of the silicon refining plants goes up. Today, the photovoltaic [PV] industry is using more silicon than the information communications industry. So we are driving the leading edge in terms of reducing the cost of refining silicon.

Why should data centers look at solar power in their energy planning? Certainly, renewable energy and carbon-free energy is important, and data centers could conceivably buy clean energy through power purchase agreements. You look at the most cost-effective items first to reduce energy, and that may be something as simple as switching to compact fluorescent lights. Then you could put in variable-speed AC drives into the HVAC system, and that may have a two- or three-year payback. You can put PV [cell panels] on the roof; typically, PV on a big-box retailer might save half of the energy consumed by the store.

What impact is federal stimulus spending having on clean technology? The [Obama] administration is giving a shot in the arm to people in the industry who labored for many years with a certain neglect from the federal government and a certain lack of understanding of the importance of energy. That's certainly changed.

There are a lot of new electronic devices running on very low power. Will there be a role for solar panels and solar power in these handheld devices? We continue to get requests for cells to explore applications like that. There are products on the market for recharging cell phones. Watches, very often, were solar-powered, but they got killed by the fact that lithium battery technology improved to the point that it just became easier and cheaper to put a lithium battery in the watch. The basic conundrum is the tremendous difference in the light sensitivity indoors or outdoors -- about a thousandfold.

You can buy PV panels designed to run laptops, but they will only [charge] outside. I think it is an interesting area, but the killer app that really drove PV was the rooftop-grid-connected application. It made so much sense to put it on the roof of your house and generate electricity where you are using it, as opposed to some power plant hundreds of miles away.

Why work with NASA to build solar airplanes? It was very important because it gave us experience with our high-efficiency solar cell technology. It was enabling technology, and NASA was able to pay a considerable amount for it. We have a solar-powered airplane that will be flying around the world, the Solar Impulse. It was sort of what NASA had in mind -- airplanes that could stay up indefinitely and monitor the atmosphere. That may come to pass.

For cars, the fact of the matter is that you cannot generate enough power from a solar panel the size of the car to power the car. You can augment. It's more likely that what we will see is solar-power charging stations. We are seeing things like parking lots that are covered with solar panels that have a twofold function. They provide electricity for charging batteries for plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles. But they also shade the parking lot and help keep the cars cool.

Where will solar power usage be in 10 or 20 years? The solar power industry has been growing at a 40% compound annual growth rate, and we don't see it stopping. In the last 20 years, we grew two-hundred-fold in terms of total production volume of solar. As an industry, we are looking to 20% to 30% of the energy in 20 years coming from solar, and by 2040 to 2050, having that go into the 40-plus percent range.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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