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Dr. Richard Swanson, Founder and CTO of SunPower Corp., "We Are Completely Dependent on Fossil Fuels"

Last night I was given the opportunity to listen to Dr. Richard Swanson, President, Chief Technology Officer and Founder of SunPower Corporation, at an event held by the Common Wealth Club of Silicon Valley.  Dr. Swanson touched on a number of different topics ranging from the founding and success of SunPower as a global photovoltaic powerhouse to the future of the global solar industry.  Filled with memorable lines, the loosely structured talk gave great insight into the man and how SunPower Corporation is structuring itself for future challenges. 

Dr. Richard Swanson

In ways of introduction, Dr. Richard Swanson is the man who saw the future of photovoltaics when many didn't.  Originally obtaining a Ph.D. from Stanford University in electrical engineering and becoming a professor there, Dr. Swanson began to target his research to unlocking the potential energy of the sun.  It was from this research that the backside contact solar cell was invented.  A backside contact solar cell is simply a rear-contact design which eliminates front-side metalization and redundant wires, maximizes the working cell area and makes automated production easier.  This design creates a marked improvement in energy producing efficiency.  This new technology became the basis for Dr. Swanson founding SunPower Corporation in 1985. 

It was not an easy road.  During the 1980s, oil dropped in price though an increase in output from OPEC nations.  This huge drop, coupled with policy makers' inability to grasp the potential of solar power, led to the demise of many the solar companies founded then.  SunPower positioned itself to weather this downturn through a new application of their extensive knowledge in light.  Creating a tiny component found in most Blackberries to read business cards, the solar company was able to survive until the real power of photovoltaic could be unleashed.

SunPower Corporation

This event came at the turn of the millennium.  After struggling for years with investment bankers, Dr. Swanson found a receptive ear in T.J. Rodgers.  T.J. Rodgers is the Founder and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation.  In this fellow technology entrepreneur he found someone who understood the simply concept of "sun-converter cell-energy."  T.J. Rodgers provided $150 million to build a large scale production facility in the Philippines.  This facility could allow for production of the materials used by solar cells and the cells themselves in a single location, dramatically cutting cost and time.

Today, SunPower Corporation employs over 6,000 individuals.  The company generated $401 million in revenue for the final quarter of 2008.  Recently, the SunPower has partnered with the Spanish and Italian governments and worked closely with PG&E to develop solar cell plants across the world.  In 2007, SunPower Corporation bought Powerlight Corporation, the largest solar installer in the United States, to provide a single integrated solution for consumers. Dr. Richard Swanson has been integral to the company from the very beginning and received the 2009 Energy Innovator Award from the Economist Magazine.

It was after this short history that Dr. Swanson began to talk more openly and provide valuable insight into the solar industry.  He began by simply stating, "We are completely dependent on fossil fuels."  Giving an example of food bought in the grocery store he showed how fossil fuel affects every level of the product.  Fossil fuel is used in every stage from tractors to fertilizers, to plastics to trucks, to lighting and heating a store to driving to the market.  "The problem is we are running out of fossil fuels."

It is this realization that we are running out of the very fuel that has led to a six fold increase in human population since the beginning of the industrial revolution is the starting point for any discussion about renewable energy.  The world must come to a landing from the consumption of fossil fuels.  This landing, as Dr. Richard Swanson puts it may be either "hard or soft."  A hard landing would be a huge change in our way of life and the foundations of society.  The 'soft' landing would be a continuation, in part, of our energy society through the use of renewables.  "Photovoltaics play an important role in the process" of any soft landing. 

"Underpinning any discussion is public knowledge."  Dr. Swanson believes that there exists a vast energy illiteracy in the public.  The public does not know how dependent we are energy, what is energy and what we can do about it.  Dr. Swanson theorizes this may be due to the abstract nature of energy.  For example, in discussions on the price of energy we talk about gas in price per gallon, but for renewable energy we talk in the average cost to consumers.  Why is this?  Simply because a gallon of gas is a tangible amount people can see and understand while a kilowatt or joule is simply an abstract term without any visual representation.  The start of the change must then be with the public.

SunPower Corporation -KeenforGreen

Another problem is that of the imagination of policy makers.  Politicians and heads of utilities can not understand the viral and exponential promise in photovoltaics.  Dr. Swanson believes that "policymakers are kinda slow sometimes."  It is hard for many policy makers to grasp that as scale is increased costs of production go down.  It is also hard for policy makers to understand how quickly scale can be accomplished.  For example, in one year Spain increased photovoltaic energy production 2.5 gigawatts.  This is equivalent to a nuclear power plant.  So instead of a fifteen to twenty year time frame for this increase in power supply, only one year would be needed.  "This is salable and politicians don't get it."

Dr. Swanson believes that the solar industry has arrived.  Currently, the solar industry produces .2% of the nations electricity, but if the current growth model is sustained for the next thirty years this can become 40% by 2040.  Photovoltaic production of power, along with wind, solar, biomass, natural gas and possibly nuclear could provide a perfect solution for the nation's energy needs.  The only obstacle is one of imagination.  We know this technology works and will get cheaper as scale increases.  Demand is present but it is the lack of imagination on the part of the public, policy makers and energy utilities that prevent a full realization. 

In the end, Dr. Swanson asked the audience, and I now ask you, to educate yourself and people about energy.  We must shed this "primitive view" of energy to unlock the true potential of photovoltaic technology for the world. 

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