I spent two days this week in Phoenix at the SunPower Dealer Conference, along with about 400 other dealers.
The solar industry has many examples of companies that embrace the triple bottom line of creating profits, benefiting the environment, and serving their community. However SunPower performs all of these more than any company with which we have interacted in our 13 years of solar advocacy and installation.
From a financial standpoint, SunPower is a standout in the industry with revenue growth and strong gross profits over time. They have a strong balance sheet with over $140M in warranty reserves, and $1B in total liquidity (it is fair to note they also have $1B in debt to service, building cutting-edge high-tech factories is expensive.)
They have invested tremendous amounts into R&D (over $100M annually) and are now opening their 4th “Fab” (crystalline silicon cell factory) in the Philippines, which will take them to an annual production capacity of over 1.6 GW.
In terms of benefiting the environment, this is fairly easy for a PV Manufacturer to accomplish, after all, that is one of the main reasons for the equipment – to alleviate the need for fossil fuel derived energy through the production of clean solar electricity. There are however different ways that a manufacturer can go about their business. SunPower strives to lead in terms of manufacturing techniques, cleanliness, water use, and recycling. Their facility in the Philippines has been awarded the Cradle to Cradle Silver Certification which addresses these issues; they are the only PV manufacturer to garner this award. Their module assembly plant which I have visited in Mexicali, Mexico is clean and impressive, achieving Zero Waste to Landfill status and deriving over 40% of the energy it uses through its on-site PV arrays that function as car ports in the parking lot.
The way in which SunPower interacts with its community is an aspect that has taken me years to fully appreciate. I include its end-user customers, their dealer partners (that’s us), and its employees. I don’t know much about their relationships with their vendors, shareholders and financiers, but I do see that they are successful in bringing in major financing to accomplish their goals, and setting up innovative programs with their peers (8Point3, a joint development company and partnership with the other leading North American PV manufacturer First Solar), and building utility scale projects for prudent customers (Berkshire Hathaway.)
Among PV manufacturers in the US at least, SunPower is the only one that eschews distribution in order to have a direct delivery relationship with its dealers, which is usually good, but can sometimes be frustrating, although it surely highlights our common interests in improving those logistics. They continually invest in us by offering training and improvements to their design and ordering processes. Their reporting requirements sometimes feel onerous since no other PV manufacturer asks anything of us, but in the long run, it will benefit everybody – namely through their direct connection with the customers. We sometimes get calls from other dealers asking for us to sell them SunPower modules so they can install for a customer that wants it – sorry, in our agreement with SunPower we commit to installing everything we buy from them, and to having a direct relationship with the end user client. SunPower does everything they can to guarantee that the customer has the most positive experience possible, and that the installer is accountable to SunPower as well as to the customer.
Having never been a SunPower employee, I can’t say what that is like personally. However from my 8 year experience as a dealer and from the multiple years I have been going to the conference, I have seen that their employees seem very happy, and I have never detected any fatigue, insincerity, or cynicism from anyone I have met with the company. Several of the people we have worked with have moved on to new positions in the company of greater responsibility. Also at the dealer conference, the access to the executive team is very good. They help the dealer network understand their significance in relation to the other business channels. And like us here at Power Trip Energy, while fiscal responsibility and the economics of solar are important, they never lose sight of the big picture as to why the rapid and ubiquitous installation of solar is crucial.
From the technological perspective, there has never been a question as to why SunPower is our favorite manufacturer. By making the highest efficiency modules on the market, we can help our clients make more energy within whatever site or budgetary limitations they may face. Although they are surely not the least expensive product in terms of dollars per watt, labor costs of installing a 10 KW array are lower when it can be done with 30 modules rather than 36. Their acquisition of SolarBridge, and their integration of micro-inverters into the manufacturing process in order to create a true AC module, complete with UL 2703 listing and lack of any DC wiring, will further improve our installation efficiency and decrease other balance of system costs.
For all of these reasons, SunPower has earned nearly all of our PV business in the last year, and unless another manufacturer dramatically improves their offerings, we expect this coming year to be the same. We are looking forward to growing with SunPower and our customers in this period of great opportunity to install clean distributed solar generation here on the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas.