The SunPower Spirit of Solar Energy Innovation

By:Peter Cousins

October 6, 2016

SunPower's innovations in solar technology, such as using robots to more efficiently clean solar panels, has been recognized worldwide.

Editor’s Note: In 2020, SunPower announced the completion of the strategic spin-off of its manufacturing division into a separate business named Maxeon Solar Technologies, Ltd. As a result, SunPower has expanded its offerings to drive future growth. The SunPower Equinox® system now offers multiple panel options, including front- and back-contact panels, all of which are responsibly and rigorously quality tested to provide the best energy solution for your home.

To hear SunPower co-founder Dick Swanson tell it, it was the innovation path less traveled that led to SunPower’s success, and (with apologies to Robert Frost) that has made all the difference.

During the 1970s, when other solar cell researchers were creating low-cost cells and trying to make them more efficient at capturing the sun’s energy, Swanson and a small group of engineers were creating solar cells that were more expensive but that were also the highest efficiency solar cells available.

“Our objective was to bring the cost down without sacrificing too much high efficiency,” said Swanson during a recent podcast with Greentech Media’s The Energy Gang. “Everyone else was working on how to get the efficiency up without adding too much cost.”

His team succeeded, setting the course for SunPower’s leadership in efficiency, where today we hold the world record for a solar panel in the lab – 24.1 percent.

SunPower solar innovation thriving today

This innovative spirit Swanson embraced is thriving at SunPower today. SunPower’s focus on solar energy innovation has resulted in an impressive 600 patents being awarded worldwide over the last three decades, including 59 in 2015 alone, and with another 1,100 applications pending.

SunPower’s patent portfolio is both broad and deep — from the fabrication of solar cells to electronic components to mounting systems. We even received the 2015 Patent for Humanity Award from the U.S. Patent and Trade Office in 2015 for our 3S (Solar Service Station) cargo containers equipped with solar lanterns to be used in in energy-impoverished areas.

Here are a few highlights from SunPower’s innovation journey:

  • Solar panels: SunPower panels have a long history of being so efficient that early solar energy pioneers used our first cells and panels, including NASA, which used our first solar panels in the Mojave desert, and Honda, which won a solar car race across Australia. Since then, SunPower has consistently moved the bar higher in solar panel efficiency, reliability and durability. Today SunPower holds the world record in the lab for large-area high efficiency silicon solar panels: 24.1 percent. And, our SunPower® X-Series panels deliver the industry’s highest efficiency of any in commercial production at 22.8 percent.

  • Manufacturing: Leveraging lessons learned working with the computer chip industry, we developed manufacturing processes that have allowed for production at scale and sustainable practices. We have been recognized with awards from The Guardian, Green Builder Magazine and Environmental Builder, among others. 

  • Integrated Systems: With the newly announced third-generation Oasis platform for solar energy power plants, the SunPower Helix™ platform (for businesses) and SunPower Equinox® platform (for residential), SunPower has pioneered standardized systems where all components are precision-engineered to work together. This enables more efficient installation and operation, and when coupled with the EnergyLink™ energy management software, can give powerful insights about energy use and financial savings.

Much of SunPower’s intellectual property has been developed internally, but at times, that expertise has been supplemented by strategic acquisitions. In 2007 SunPower acquired PowerLight, which was making breakthroughs with a new method of commercial installation that did not require bolts or holes in a roof to secure the panels. In 2013 SunPower acquired Greenbotics to offer robotic solar panel cleaning products and services for large-scale solar power plants.

And, in 2014 SunPower acquired SolarBridge Technologies, adding high performance microinverter technology that offers system design flexibility and less expensive installation. Cogenra was acquired by SunPower in 2015, and with the combined expertise of Cogenra’s R&D and SunPower engineering, we created the SunPower® Performance Series panels (P-Series), a larger panel that gains efficiency by capturing more light. 

With relentlessly innovation at the core of what we do, SunPower maintains active R&D labs and oversight of our IP. We’re even the first solar company to build a stand-alone Research and Development Ranch in Davis, Calif., to host concept testing for new technologies that drive continued innovation in the energy industry. We are constantly reinventing ourselves and evolving in new spaces. With a history like ours and the challenger spirit set by Dick Swanson, SunPower will continue to push the limits of what’s possible for years to come.