The world’s energy supply has become a hot topic recently (see latest coverage in the NYT), so we’ve been on the prowl in Silicon Valley looking for companies that are trying to find solutions. We’re assuming this is the place, with its cutting-edge technology, eager entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, that would devise some cool breakthroughs.

We recently visited Sunnyvale’s SunPower, a producer of some cutting-edge photovoltaic system, having heard about their new highly-efficient photovoltaic system. If it works, it’ll be a great example of how Silicon Valley expertise can solve new problems. Here’s a company that is using the silicon manufacturing capabilities of its parent company, Cypress Semiconductor, to apparently construct a better module up front. SunPower is maximizing the active front surface available to absorb and convert sunlight, which means more efficiency. The cells are designed with all the electrical contacts on the back surface where they don’t block the sun. So its cells are producing 90 watts, while the industry norm is 75 watts, and its panels are smaller and better-looking. “We’re trying to be the Audi, or BMW of solar,” said Peter Aschenbrenner, SunPower’s vice president of sales & marketing.

When SunPower launched in the U.S. market in October (it first launched in the German market in June) at a conference in San Francisco, we asked Barry Cinnamon of Akeena, one the nation’s largest installers of solar panels, what he thought. Cinnamon was skeptical at the time, simply buying up Sharp’s standard product for the time being and waiting to get more info.

We went back to him today, and here’s what he said.

(He also mentions Palo Alto’s Nanosolar, which is developing a thin-film solar cell, and considered at least a year away from hitting the market. His last line, too, underscores how much of a demand there is right now for solar cells. Looks like SolarPower has good timing at least.)

“They have an excellent product that is very well positioned in the marketplace with regards to very high efficiency — that is the trend that the industry will follow. Moreover, the aesthetics are good: black frames, black cells, etc. We are one of their initial distributors and are installing three of the very first shipment on the roofs of their top execs.

For now they will do great. The challenge will be when the market becomes competitive again (supply catches up to demand) and they will have to really ramp up their manufacturing to keep up with Sharp, Kyocera and Sanyo.

I met with the Nanosolar guys last week and put them in touch with the guys from Solar Integrated Technologies. Nanosolar has a good concept — but we will see if their efficiency is high enough and their product lasts long enough to work on large commercial flat roofs (which is their best market segment). I also bumped into someone from Solaicx — we discussed the future shortage of processed silicon feedstock for cells.

I’m headed down to Tijuana tonight to go to Kyocera’s Grand Opening of their new module production facility. Unfortunately I can’t take a big truck with me to bring back all the modules we need.


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