San Jose-based SunPower designs and manufactures high-efficiency solar cells and solar panels for residential, commercial and utility clients. Total, the French oil company, purchased a majority stake in SunPower in 2011. SunPower has several high-profile projects under its belt: its 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch, in San Luis Obispo County, is producing electricity for PG&E and generating enough power for about 100,000 homes. SunPower solar panels are also generating electricity for Apple's massive data centers in Maiden, North Carolina, and a planned Apple data center in Reno.
But the next big thing for the renewable energy industry is storage, and SunPower is about to add energy storage to its solar offerings. The Mercury News recently interviewed CEO Tom Werner in his San Jose office; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q You have been CEO of SunPower for 11 years, which is a pretty long run by Silicon Valley standards, and you've seen the solar industry go through a really transformative period, including the recession. Did you ever expect to stay in this position for this long?
A I didn't expect to be here for 11 years and counting, but it's been a hell of a ride. In six years we went from roughly $5 million in revenue to over $2 billion. It's been a yin and yang equation: We're changing the world on one side, and building a great company on the other side. Changing the world is pretty powerful. We're changing the way that people get energy, and what could be more compelling than that? The size of the opportunity is now 100 times that of when I started.
Q You've weathered tough competition and the rise and fall of Solyndra, as well as competition from Chinese solar companies and the global recession in 2008. How do you see the solar landscape now? SunPower had a couple of very rough quarters but has emerged as one of the strongest solar companies standing.
A What pulled us through the downturn is that we saw the downturn coming. We had a business model that we thought could sustain us, and we fought through it. You also have to focus on what's next, which for us is becoming an energy service provider with a battery-based storage system. We'll add to a solar system so you can store that energy and control load, so you have total control over your energy bill. It's integration of storage with energy management with the solar system. I don't think it's that far away, it's three to five years. The concept is, you generate electricity with your solar and use it when you want. Right now the grid is the backup. We're going to give you your own backup. The idea of distributed generation is completely disruptive to energy as we see it today.
Q So energy storage is the next new thing in Silicon Valley. What is the biggest challenge of energy storage for the single-family home -- is it safety concerns? Size? Cost? Battery chemistry is still a formidable challenge.
A The challenge is cost, first and foremost. Second is size. We have a couple pilot projects in Australia and they are big. Right now a lot of storage is the size of a small refrigerator or a water heater, and we'd like it to be smaller. Safety is fine. But the trick will be the integration of storage, not storage itself. Storage is like where solar was 10 years ago.
Q The Obama administration recently announced that it has completed the installation of solar on the roof of the White House, but it didn't say who the vendor was. No one seems to know who made the panels. I don't think it was SunPower, but who was it? And does it have any real meaning beyond symbolic?
A I don't know, either. It wasn't us. I love the symbolism. I think it's great. But what was done with the stimulus funding to extend the solar ITC, or investment tax credit, through the end of 2016 was huge for the solar industry, and that happened because of the Obama administration. And despite the politics and the negative publicity, the Department of Energy's loan program had many successes. It made a huge difference. Utility-scale solar before President Barack Obama was in office was an oxymoron. It didn't exist conceptually. Today it's mainstream.
Q You've been to Saudi Arabia and SunPower has some projects in Australia. What do you see as being the big global markets for solar?
A China. China is massive. The motivation to go solar is high because the air quality is so obvious. In China you can't breathe. Japan is the second-largest market. There are really only 10 countries that matter today in solar and really drive the business. China, Japan, the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Chile, South Africa and Mexico.
Q Three years ago, you were in a terrible bike accident and broke your neck in three places. How did that change your life?
A I had a record that I was keeping that I worked out every day by swimming, biking or running. When I broke my neck I was at 23 years of not missing a day of working out. So my first thought was. "I'm not going to keep my streak alive," and then "At least I am alive." It has a huge impact on putting things in perspective. People ask me why I bike again, and it's why I bike again. I didn't survive that so I could just sit in the house. It's made me appreciate things a heck of a lot more. I typically bike on Tuesdays and Thursdays before work.
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
Current job: President and CEO, SunPower
Previous jobs: CEO of Silicon Light Machines, an optical solutions subsidiary of Cypress Semiconductor; previously worked at 3Com, Oak Industries and General Electric
Education: Bachelor's degree, industrial engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison; bachelor's degree, electrical engineering, Marquette University; MBA, George Washington University
Residence: Los Altos
Family: Married, two daughters ages 26 and 28
Five things about tom werner
1. He drives a Nissan Leaf.
2. He makes a point to work out every day by swimming, biking or running. Some days he does all three.
3. He serves on the boards of Cree, Silver Spring Networks and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
4. He's a member of the Marquette University board of trustees.
5. He's an avid gardener.