MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.—It's only late morning, but already the sun has turned Silicon Valley into an oven that's broiling human and housing tract alike. On days like this, everyone gets the same idea: Crank up the A/C. It's a day of high energy use—the kind that taxes and teases California's fragile electricity grid.
But this brand of sunbaked California weather is when solar energy shines (or, really, soaks in the rays)—making it a high-energy day of a totally different kind. On the roofs of four buildings on Microsoft's Mountain View campus, a sleek grid of 2,288 black SunPower solar panels—covering 31,000 square feet in all, about the size of the average chain bookstore—is slurping up the summer light and converting it into electricity. Thanks to the installation, which was finished in early 2006, the Microsoft complex can tap the California grid for about 6 percent less electricity in all, and about 15 percent less at times of peak use.
Superefficient. These days, that's the kind of math that will rouse the interest of even an Al Gore-Inconvenient Truth skeptic. Gyrating energy prices, fears that the climate is changing, and the public's growing interest in energy independence are good news for solar companies like San Jose-based SunPower. Its superefficient solar cells dapple residential, commercial, and industrial landscapes from Parsippany, N.J., to Barcelona, converting 22 percent of the sun's rays to electricity, compared with industry norms of about 10 to 15 percent. The company plans to market a 23.4-percent-efficient cell within the next two years. In a volatile solar market with lots of emerging players, SunPower's efficiency levels are a big reason the company, with 3,700 employees worldwide, is expected to be "one of the longtime survivors," says Paul Clegg, an analyst with Jefferies & Co.
Along with its technological jump on competitors, SunPower is also leaping quickly into overseas markets that offer fat subsidies for renewable energy, while chasing customers of all stripes. (Commercial and residential sales have each made up about 40 percent of recent revenues, with utility projects accounting for the rest.) "The Harvard Business School professors would ask: Can you win in all three?...I think you can," says SunPower CEO Thomas Werner. "I don't know if you can indefinitely, but I think you can in the early stages of the market."
Investors certainly have high expectations. SunPower stock trades at a rich price-to-earnings ratio of about 250, although that number dropped recently in part on news that Spain may sharply cut its solar subsidies. The company rang up $274 million in sales in the first quarter this year, nearly double the year-ago period. Net income jumped to $12.8 million from $1.2 million a year earlier. The company reports its second-quarter earnings July 17—analysts expect earnings per share will double from a year ago to hit 50 cents.
SunPower gained major kudos when it moved from simply making the components of solar power systems to designing and installing them as well. In 2007, it acquired PowerLight, a California company specializing in large commercial and utility-scale systems that often use SunPower cells. (SunPower still relies on a network of 170 or so dealers to install its residential systems.) The PowerLight purchase may have given SunPower its biggest edge over competitors, says John Hardy, an analyst with American Technology Research. "It's really important to be able to see where the end-market demand is actually coming from, particularly in a relatively new industry like solar," Hardy says. Competitors that make only components often rely on the installers for insights into demand.
Most solar installations so far have been driven by government incentives. In the United States, incentives have drawn such disparate corporate names as Tiffany's and Wal-Mart—both SunPower customers. A system of 72,000 SunPower solar panels provides about 25 percent of the electricity needs at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
But the reliance on incentives can hurt. A federal investment tax credit has mostly encouraged U.S. commercial installations, Werner says—for residences, it allows only a smallish 30 percent tax credit, up to $2,000, for a photovoltaic system. That credit expires at the end of the year. Congress has been tussling over an extension: Senate Republicans are blocking a bill from House Democrats because they don't like the way it's funded. Some states, like New Jersey and California, have offered sizable solar rebates for residents.