ATP Helps Develop the World's Most Efficient Solar Panels
Duration and Cost:
funding amount: $2.0M
Corporation cost-share amount: $1.5M
Report of the Completed Project:
Solar cells produce power in one of two basic methods: a relatively inexpensive flat-plate system (light directly falls on the photovoltaic cell); or a potentially more efficient micro-concentrator design, which focuses (intensifies) the sunlight onto a small area cell. In 1999, SunPower Corporation was a small company that was formed in the mid-1980s by Dr. Richard Swanson, then a professor at Stanford University. SunPower proposed a radical new approach to develop a new type of micro-concentrator that would be combine the virtues of the two types of systems, so that it would be low-cost and also have very high photovoltaic conversion efficiency. Despite the potential benefits, there was a great deal of technical uncertainty, and the small company could not afford to embark on such an ambitious project like this with internal funds, and venture investors shied away from the high degree of risk. However, the SunPower proposal met ATP criteria: the plan was innovative, had high technical risk, and had the potential for broad national benefits (solar energy is a renewable, non-polluting form of energy, and the U.S. market share in photovoltaics had rapidly been decreasing). Thus, in 1999, SunPower was competitively awarded funds to pursue this approach.
and Economic Impacts
In the project, SunPower successfully demonstrated prototype results for their novel micro-concentrator. In addition, the ATP project also came at a critical time for the company and allowed SunPower to maintain technical development during a period of limited financial investments. A key technical objective of the ATP project was to develop passivation processing and device structures that would significantly reduce semiconductor performance losses. While this technology was initially attempted for use with micro-concentrators, SunPower was able to adapt it to work with flat panel solar arrays.
- These technical advances have been incorporated into a current product—SunPower’s A-300 solar cell, which has a conversion efficiency of 21%—the highest available on the market, and performs 50% better than other systems.
In 2001, after the ATP project ended, SunPower was still a small company. In early 2002, Cypress Semiconductor assessed the SunPower technology and made a substantial investment in SunPower. Eventually, SunPower became a subsidiary of Cypress. In November 2005, SunPower had an initial public offering (IPO) to raise funds for continued expansion and manufacturing.
ATP funding has allowed SunPower’s remarkable growth:
- In 1999 (prior to ATP), SunPower had only 40 employees and less than $7 million in revenue.
- By 2006, SunPower has over 700 employees, revenue of over $80 million, and a market capitalization of over $2 Billion.
- According to CTO Richard Swanson, “SunPower would likely not exist today without the support of the ATP program”
The public benefits of this project are also large. Solar technology produces domestic, sustainable, renewable energy that is non-polluting, and thus has none of the negative externalities associated with the other forms of energy—it is not dependant on foreign sources; does not emit harmful pollutants, and does not come from a finite resource.
Date created: August 3, 2006
August 21, 2006