Empowered: Detail of a solar panel built with crystalline PV cells from Q-Cells, the world’s largest manufacturer
get energy otherwise? And in the ’70s, the answer was defni-tively no.” The answer was still a pretty strong no when Werner
took the helm of SunPower in 2003. He’d been transferred from
Cypress Semiconductor, which had recently bought the company, and was given the monumental task of bringing the price
down to mass-market rates.
“Today,” he says, “the cost of the grid’s gone like this.” He
slices his hand sharply upward, indicating the skyrocketing
price of conventional energy. “And the cost of solar is coming
down. So that crossover point is imminent.”
Werner calls that point the “levelized cost of energy,” but in
most of the industry the preferred term is “grid parity”—that
magic moment, which may arrive by 2012 or even sooner in
heavily subsidized energy markets such as California, Germany,
Italy, and Japan, when the price of a kilowatt-hour of solar energy
is about the same as one generated by any other fuel source.
Grid parity: It obsesses solar executives like a grail, rolls off
their lips like a forceful boast or a solemn promise. Grid parity:
100 Fast company December 2008 / January 2009
not if, no longer if. Only when.
Under Werner, SunPower has rapidly reinvented itself, catapulting from the lab to the center of an exploding global market. At every turn, he and his team uncovered the weaknesses
and irrationalities of an immature industry, particularly at the
postproduction end, where installation costs often represent
50% of the total price of a PV system. In response, the company
simply expanded into those markets. SunPower is unique in the
business today in that it manages essentially its entire supply
chain, from silicon ingot to installation. “We’ve industrialized
this industry,” says vice president Julie Blunden.
The company’s timing has been impeccable. Every year
since Werner’s arrival, the global solar industry has grown by
at least 40%. It has jumped from humble residential roofs to the
wide, fat expanses of big-box stores and ofce parks, and graduated from rooftop array to greenfeld power plant. Solar power
was the planet’s fastest growing energy source in 2007, and in
recent years, demand has outpaced supply and given rise to the