SUNday Podcast – Ep.3 – A Conversation with SunPower

Dec 29, 2020Solar, SUNday Podcast

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Welcome to our SUNday Podcast – Episode 3 – A Conversation about SunPower, their products, people and culture.

Below is a transcribed version of this podcast:

 

KATE GARRENS:

Welcome everyone, I’m Kate Garrens with EnergyONE Renewables. Thank you for tuning in to our SUNday Podcast, talking about all things renewable energy. Today, I have a special guest, his name is Josh Kossman with SunPower and SunPower is a premier solar manufacturer here in the US and abroad.

Josh Kossman:

Thanks, Kate. We’re excited to be here.

KATE GARRENS:

Well, let’s get to it. So we’re going to talk about some really fun things with SunPower. Explain what SunPower is, what you guys do, what you offer.

Josh Kossman:

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I guess simply put SunPower is a solar equipment manufacturer. We’re based out of San Jose, California. We’ve been in business since 1985, which makes us the oldest continuously operating solar equipment manufacturer in the industry.

KATE GARRENS:

Wow.

Josh Kossman:

Again, founded on Silicon Valley tech innovation. We built our business on making high quality equipment, primarily cells in the beginning and then working our way up to full modules and full equipment, full kits.

KATE GARRENS:

That is so cool. Okay. We’re going back to the ’80s and that seems like a really long time because I’ve been in the solar industry for probably, I don’t know, between five and eight years, if I’m like really thinking about it. And there’s been a lot of solar panel manufacturers that have gone out of business. Started, gone out of business or even some that have been around for a little while and they’ve gone out of business too, some really big names. So that speaks volumes for SunPower to be around since the ’80s. Like, wow.

Josh Kossman:

Yep. Continuously operational since 1985. Yeah.

KATE GARRENS:

We say flagship products, are they considered tier one, they’re premiere? I know they’re kind of top of the line. What makes them so amazing over everybody else?

Josh Kossman:

Yeah, sure. So we have won accolades time and time again for things like number one durability in the industry for our products or number one efficiency in the industry for products in wattage … Number one, wattage in this industry as well. We’ve done that since our inception, since 1985. And we still hold world records in module efficiency and cell efficiency. You asked about flagship products. I think there’s two ways to answer this, so our flagship product today is really what we call the SunPower Equinox solution. And what that means is it’s a full solar system. So there’s a lot more to a solar system than just solar modules. Modules tend to get all the headlines and get all the press, but there’s also what we call in the industry racking, which is really just the nuts and bolts of the system. Things that hold everything together on the roof for 25 years or longer. There’s inverters, which invert the DC power that all modules create into AC power.

Josh Kossman:

And then what most homeowners interact with the most is our monitoring or the monitoring in the system. So a way to track what you’re producing, potentially what you’re consuming from the grid. Our Equinox solution is all of those and we’re the only manufacturer in this industry to make every single one of those components branded by one company, warrantied by one company and covered by one company.

KATE GARRENS:

That’s incredible. Yeah.

Josh Kossman:

Yeah, it’s really exciting. When you think about how homeowners purchase really any home appliance, they’re purchasing in this way. Just again, to use an example, if you buy a refrigerator, you’d expect every component in that refrigerator to be made by one manufacturer, covered by one manufacturer. That’s what we can provide in the industry. And we’ve been doing that since 2014, when we launched that product. So I would say that’s really our flagship product today, but historically, and what I say is still our cornerstone technology is our cell technology.

Josh Kossman:

So we here at SunPower, we’re founded and patented on what we call a Maxeon cell technology, which is very different than the way most, if not all other panel manufacturers and cell manufacturers make their equipment. Not to get too nerdy with you, but it’s an interdigitated backside contact technology. What it is, is a solid copper foundation on the rear of every cell. And that’s where we conduct electricity. The way most manufacturers do it and every manufacturer before us did it, was that they would have front side contacts, where typically some kind of a screen pasted metal like an aluminum or maybe silver. And being on the front of the cell, it not only shaded the active surface of the silicon, but it also was more prone to degradation, breakage and damage over time.

Josh Kossman:

By having a solid copper foundation on the rear of the cell, the induction stays a little cooler, stays more efficient and that solid copper foundation gives us much greater level of strength and durability over the lifetime. That’s why we-

KATE GARRENS:

All right, that is cool.

Josh Kossman:

Yeah. That’s why we typically, or not typically, it’s why we do have the lowest degradation rates in the industry. Not only in the real world, but also warranted degradation for our products.

KATE GARRENS:

Okay. I did not know that and I love the nerdy side of solar. So that was great. I love that. That was a great explanation. Thank you.

Josh Kossman:

Awesome, yeah. Great.

KATE GARRENS:

We call ourselves solar nerds in our company all the time. I’m like, “Whatever, I don’t care.” I’m just going to own it. I love being a solar nerd, so it’s okay.

Josh Kossman:

Great.

KATE GARRENS:

What is the rage with the black panels, the black on black? I mean, aside from them just looking really cool, what do you think the range is?

Josh Kossman:

It’s a great question. And we’re definitely seeing that trend in the industry of not only homeowners, but dealers really moving towards the all black options. Honestly, if you really want me to be honest about it, I think it’s sales driven. I think sales organizations like to use it as a way to differentiate at kitchen table. It’s a way to talk to a prospective homeowner about having a very clean aesthetic, a way to talk to homeowners about … I’ve heard this phrase used myself, having basically another skylight on your roof or having like a flat screen TV on your roof. Those are analogies that I hear a lot that homeowners can relate to.

Josh Kossman:

Again, going back to our flagship product, that Equinox home solution product. I’ll argue all day long that if you have an all black panel, but you don’t have control over all the other components, you won’t necessarily have a better aesthetic and we get to marry both of those. So not only do we have the all black panels, but we control what they’re racked and what they’re mounted to, and the way we’ve developed our system is to have 70% fewer visible parts, which gives an overall superior system aesthetic, let alone just the modules.

KATE GARRENS:

Oh, I did not know that. See, I’m learning things too.

Josh Kossman:

Yeah, just to wrap that up or answer your question. I think it’s an aesthetic driven demand. I think largely it’s sales organizations wanting to differentiate and to talk to homeowners about aesthetics in a way that they feel they’ll have some type of leverage.

KATE GARRENS:

Right. Okay. So I want to go back to what you just said, 70% less, you mean, you don’t see 70% of the racking and rail and all of that. So it’s all sort of hidden, so mostly you just see the panels on the roof.

Josh Kossman:

Yeah, that’s exactly right. So when we were developing Equinox, we did market studies and we asked homeowners what they liked about solar racking and it turned out it was nothing. They didn’t like anything about it.

KATE GARRENS:

Right, yeah.

Josh Kossman:

They would prefer to see less of it. And so that’s exactly what we developed. Again, not to get too nerdy, but we developed our modules so that you can attach on the ends and the mids underneath the module, instead of on top. Typically, you do top-down kind of torquing. And we do it from the bottom, which again, removes those that visibility. Since our system is typically AC architecture, we use factory integrated micro-inverters on the back of our panels. It removes the need to have a centralized inverter or optimizer system hung off of the roof on the side of a home, so that plays into it as well.

KATE GARRENS:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Josh Kossman:

And since AC is arguably safer, you tend to find that you can run conduit through attics or flex conduit through attics more often than when you could, if you had a DC architectured system.

KATE GARRENS:

Right.

Josh Kossman:

So yeah. So it’s the rails, the mids and the conduit, and then the lack of the inverter box on the side of the house that gets us to that 70%.

KATE GARRENS:

Yes, I’m just going to share it kind of a funny story. Like way back in the day when we first started, we had customers that would … They hated seeing that silver rail of hang out and we had a guy who wanted us to spray paint. And so we had our guys up there spray painting the ends of this silver rail because our customer was like, “I hate it. I don’t like it.” And we were like, “Well, I don’t know what else … ” Because we didn’t have anything back in those days, they didn’t have different color rail. So it’s just silly. It’s just funny.

Josh Kossman:

That’s exactly the feedback that we heard too, and as a manufacturer, we had the ability to go and design something better.

KATE GARRENS:

So Josh, you had mentioned the durability and the efficiency and then the aesthetic piece of SunPower and all of their products. And I kind of wanted to circle back around with that a little bit. Why is SunPower considered premier when it comes to the durability and the efficiency? And I know we haven’t talked about the warranty either. So can we chat maybe a little bit about that too?

Josh Kossman:

Absolutely. So again, we’ve been consistently ranked in this industry, number one for durability, which means product reliability, really. Whether or not it’s going to hold up to certain incremental weather or-

KATE GARRENS:

Hail.

Josh Kossman:

Hail, exactly. Those types of things. And we’ve also been ranked number one in efficiency, so turning actual sunlight into power. So we rate efficiency at a module level and we’ve held the world record for module efficiency since the late ’90s, I believe. It’s been a very long time.

KATE GARRENS:

The world record? World, the whole world.

Josh Kossman:

That’s right.

KATE GARRENS:

That’s a big deal

Josh Kossman:

World record for module efficiency. And all of that really boils down to again, our counter or cornerstone rather technology, that Maxeon cell technology. So again, it’s a solid copper foundation on the cell. Copper is known for its durability and known for its excellent conductivity. So both of those right there will give us a leg up in both of those categories. And then we’ve taken a better approach to inner cell connectivity as well. So in between every one of our cells in a module, and I guess I’ll back up just one second for some of your listeners. A module is typically made up of a number of cells, anywhere from 60 to these days, 120 cells can make up one module. So if your cell technology is great, awesome. But how about the interconnection between each of those cells? And we took the same approach. We wanted to make something extremely durable, something that would last in real world applications.

Josh Kossman:

And so we created what we call a triple redundant and now actually is quadruple redundant interconnection technology, which is another solid copper bar and tin coated. So it kind of prevents corrosion as well, in between each one of our cells. In Kansas City it gets pretty dang cold during the winter, right?

KATE GARRENS:

Oh, yeah.

Josh Kossman:

Yeah. It gets pretty hot.

KATE GARRENS:

It’s cold now.

Josh Kossman:

Pretty hot in the summer and yeah, right in the spring and fall, it can get hot, cold every day. If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes kind of a thing.

KATE GARRENS:

That’s right. That’s what they say, yep.

Josh Kossman:

There you go. And so if you think about the components of a module, you have silicon, you’ve got copper, you’ve got tin, you’ve got glass, you’ve got aluminum on the frames. All of these are different materials that expand and contrast at different rates with different temperatures.

KATE GARRENS:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Josh Kossman:

So though everything in a module, really any module is going to be secured pretty well. They’re going to move a little bit within that module. And over those temperature swings on a daily, monthly, yearly, decade, you’re going to start to see weakness in those cells and the cell technology and the interconnection.

KATE GARRENS:

Yeah.

Josh Kossman:

And so our technology takes a lot of that into account and it’s for those reasons that we’ve had again, the highest efficiency and highest durability ratings. And this is not just coming from us. Because we’ve been in business for so long. We have built relationships with groups like NREL, which is the National Renewable Energy Lab who go out and do fleet studies. And recently, a couple of years ago, they did a comprehensive fleet study of all of our systems in the field and found that on average, they were degrading at a very, very low rate. So when I say degrading or degradation, this is similar to any electronics. You’re going to see some type of efficiency loss year over year. The average in this industry is around 0.7%, 0.7 to 0.8% every year. So a module will lose about that every year. What NREL found was that our models were producing about 0.14% and that’s in a real-world technology over many decades of systems.

Josh Kossman:

And that led us to the industry’s best warranty. Our warranty today is for .25% degradation every year, because again, things can happen. So we wanted to build a bit of a buffer there, but it is still head and shoulders above any of our competitors. I think the nearest competitor has a 0.26, that’s just one. And still the average in the industry is that 0.7% degradation.

KATE GARRENS:

That’s crazy. A lot of our customers, they all want to know what’s the warranty. So tell us about SunPower’s warranty on their products. Is it easy? If I’m a customer and I have a warranty claim, is it easy for me? Are there like a million hoops I have to jump through only to then pay all this money out of pocket and I don’t get anything covered? How is it? Tell us about it.

Josh Kossman:

Great question. And I’m obviously an employee of SunPower, so a little biased here, but our warranty is phenomenal. It really is and it’s easy. Again, to go back to our flagship product, the Equinox solution, we manufacture every component, we cover every component under one warranty. If you have a problem with your system and heaven forbid you don’t. Again, because we have durable products and reliable products, but if you do, you can call 1-800-SUNPOWER. We’ll open a ticket, we’ll send out technicians to your home to diagnose, or ideally remotely diagnose, depending on the age of your system. And we’ll start working on it. The warranty is 25 years on the performance of the system. And that again, goes into the degradation that I mentioned before. It’s 25 years on the product itself, so that product is actually going to function and it’s 25 years on the service and labor. So that would be shipping costs, labor cost to come out and diagnose, labor costs to replace the equipment. It is truly a zero out of pocket warranty for homeowners.

KATE GARRENS:

Yeah. That’s really big because I don’t think your competitors cover for 25 years the labor and all of that. I think that’s … Yeah.

Josh Kossman:

To be fair, some of them do, but the ones that do, do it for one component of the system.

KATE GARRENS:

Right, yeah.

Josh Kossman:

Again, we’re the only manufacturer that makes every component. So there are some manufacturers out there that have great warranties on their modules. I’ll give credit where credit is due, but that’s the only part of the system that they make. They don’t make the racking, they don’t make the inverters, they don’t make the monitoring.

KATE GARRENS:

Right.

Josh Kossman:

And so, it could very easily get into a situation with a homeowner where you have this great module warranty, but it’s a problem with the inverter and now they have to call a different company that has a different warranty with different terms and different conditions.

KATE GARRENS:

Yes.

Josh Kossman:

Right?

KATE GARRENS:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Josh Kossman:

And then in those situations that inverter company might say, “Well, the system wasn’t grounded correctly.” So you’ve got to now call the racking manufacturer. Who’s yet another manufacturer with another warranty at different stipulations. So yeah again, we feel that it’s much easier for homeowners to understand and when needed, ideally never, but when needed to actually get claims. Claims made.

KATE GARRENS:

Yeah. Yeah. As homeowners, we like it to be easy. We just want to call somebody and haven’t done, have taken care of. Right?

Josh Kossman:

That’s right, yep.

KATE GARRENS:

I love that. I love that it’s all in one house. I wanted to ask you guys, I mean, obviously we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. COVID-19 is no stranger to anybody at this point. I think we all know somebody who has had it or they’ve personally gone through it. It’s affecting our daily lives, whether you’re an adult or a child or elderly. How is the industry, the renewable energy or the solar industry, how are we fairing in the face of this global pandemic? Are you guys seeing any changes? Is it affecting sales? Is it affecting installations? What do you see?

Josh Kossman:

Sure. Yeah, no great question. We have been extremely fortunate in this industry, that we’ve been doing very well through the pandemic. There has been a long theory that our products, residential, commercial, solar could be countercyclical to economic or global downturns. It’s been a theory, because we haven’t had an opportunity to test it. During the last financial crisis, the industry was a fraction of what it is today. So we had some good data there, but this year has given us the confidence in knowing that, that claim is true. From a residential and commercial standpoint we’ve grown double digits year over year, year over year.

KATE GARRENS:

Yeah.

Josh Kossman:

Yeah, there was a downturn in Q2, which is really April through June, right after the shutdown started, but Q3, Q4 has rebounded extremely well and so much so that the industry analysts have upped the forecast for the next number of years in terms of growth. So they anticipate we’ll maintain on this double digit growth levels.

KATE GARRENS:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Josh Kossman:

From a sales standpoint, I think that makes a lot of sense. Again, this idea of being countercyclical to economic downturns, because a lot of people look to solar as a way to lock in their costs, to lower their costs, to understand where they’re going to be spending money.

KATE GARRENS:

That’s right.

Josh Kossman:

I guess, they find comfort in taking that into their own hands rather than continuing to rely on their utility for their grid power or others. So from a sales standpoint, that makes a ton of sense and sales throughout this entire period have been very high. We as a company have broken records, records, records on new bookings, new sales, new orders. Yeah, so that’s been great. Largely the digital landscape, the prevalence of Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams has allowed us to do that in a safe way, has allowed us to sell virtually into homeowner’s homes when requested, so that we were able to again, continue providing solutions to homeowners in their time of need. On the installation standpoint, that’s been a little slower, to be honest.

KATE GARRENS:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Josh Kossman:

Only because many states have had pretty strict lockdowns.

KATE GARRENS:

Yes.

Josh Kossman:

States like California, New York, New Jersey have had very strict lockdowns.

KATE GARRENS:

Oh, yeah.

Josh Kossman:

And those are historically very large solar markets for us. Again, we’re starting to rebound. We kind of had to, with our own internal installation teams restructure how we look at safety. Not only from an on the roof standpoint, but off the roof, social distancing, ensuring that we’re not encroaching on homeowner’s spaces. So that all took a little bit of time. But I think it’s made us a stronger company and a safer company and a safer industry in general. We’re not the only ones that have been going through these exercises.

KATE GARRENS:

I feel like the pandemic has sort of taught us that we all need to be more self-sufficient, if ever there was another crisis, whether it’s for our country or our world. I feel like, I see a lot more of our customers wanting to be more self-sufficient. They’re wanting to inquire about a battery. They’re wanting to inquire about going off grid. That can be kind of scary to people at times I think, because I think in the back of all of our minds, the grid is sort of a safety net for us, for some reason. But I know that SunPower has come out with their home battery solution too. So I wanted to kind of ask you a little bit about that. What are you guys seeing with it? And tell me a little bit about this home battery solution. What is so cool about it?

Josh Kossman:

Yeah, sure. So we call it the SunPower SunVault, it is our home battery solution.

KATE GARRENS:

Okay.

Josh Kossman:

It’s a lithium iron phosphate technology, which is slightly different than some of the other providers out there in the industry. Lithium iron phosphate is inherently safer technology. So you don’t have the same risks that you would see with your Samsung Galaxies. It’s probably an outdated reference, but if you puncture a battery, you’re not in risk with hours of fires or explosions or anything like that.

KATE GARRENS:

Right, okay. Cool.

Josh Kossman:

So we’re happy with the technology. We’re happy with the chemistry, but what’s really cool about it is, it gives us the ability to both service those customers who will experience or expect to experience grid outages. So what I call off-grid situations and also provide value to homeowners who want to stay on the grid as well. So we have the ability to do both with our solution. We’ve made proprietary software that will allow a homeowner to manage it from their app, whether they want to go into backup mode, whether they want to go into energy savings mode. We call this energy arbitrage mode probably need to come up with a better marketing term for that, but ways for homeowners to use clean power at night, rather than sending credits to the grid and using a typical net metering type of structure.

KATE GARRENS:

Yes, because I will say it is a huge misconception, I think it’s probably the biggest one in the solar industry is, that when people want to go solar, they have this idea in their mind. “Well, I have solar panels on my roof. So if the grid goes out, I’m good. I’m covered because my panels are going to be collecting all the energy.” But that’s not the case, if you’re grid tied and you have solar and the grid goes out, your solar goes out too.

Josh Kossman:

That’s right.

KATE GARRENS:

So this is a solution that helps with that. So if somebody wants to be grid tied and have a battery backup, like you said, and maybe they want to use their clean energy at night. This is sort of a solution for all things that are a concern, I think, right?

Josh Kossman:

Yeah. That’s what we’re seeing.

KATE GARRENS:

I love that.

Josh Kossman:

And so far the demand has been very strong. I mean, for storage general, I shared earlier that we expect the solar industry to grow at double digit rates. We expect the storage industry to grow at triple digit rates over the next few years. So yeah, we’re really excited to be rolling out this product at a time when a lot of homeowners are asking for it.

KATE GARRENS:

And so when can we start to see them for purchase? When can we get our hands on one?

Josh Kossman:

Sure. So we are in our initial launch right now. We’re kind of launching West Coast over to East Coast for lack of a better, I guess, phrase.

KATE GARRENS:

California always gets the cool stuff first, I feel like.

Josh Kossman:

Well again, we’re based in San Jose. So we like to test things and try things in our backyard first, before rolling them out. But yes, we are in the process right now of finalizing our nationwide and even global launch plans. You can expect to see them in your backyard sometime in Q2. So that would be sometime between April and June of this year.

KATE GARRENS:

I just am kind of being a little bit nosy, but I want to hear a little bit about the SunPower culture. I know you guys have like all these cool things, not that I’m trying to like promote your company or get you guys some new employees or anything But oh my gosh, this is so neat because you’re a US company. Okay, you’re producing all these like amazing solar products, but you guys are like a fun company. Like you guys seem to always have fun employees. I’ve heard about your paid time off. You guys get all this unlimited or I don’t know what you call it, unlimited PTO and you get volunteer PTO. Tell them a little bit about that because this is so neat to me. It just seems like [crosstalk 00:25:22].

Josh Kossman:

Yeah. Yeah, no. I appreciate the opportunity. I’ve been here at SunPower for four years. It’s been the best job I’ve ever had. Not only just from an engaging standpoint intellectually, but also personally. The people I work with are fantastic. And we really do have an employee first policy here at SunPower. You mentioned our unlimited PTO. We call it discretionary, PTO. Discretionary in that it’s up to the discretion of the manager, as a manager I don’t think I’ve ever declined one. So yeah, we can call it unlimited, that’s fine. Beyond that, we have other great community engagement policies. One of which I just recently took advantage of is our volunteer time off. So we’re allotted volunteer time off every day. I recently went and spent a whole day volunteering with a local food bank here in New Orleans. And not only did that count as PTO, but the company will also donate to that organization on my behalf. So it’s kind of a win-win for everybody.

KATE GARRENS:

[crosstalk 00:26:25]. I love that. That’s so cool. So you get to like support whatever you want to volunteer and SunPower supports you supporting them and that is so great.

Josh Kossman:

That’s right.

KATE GARRENS:

I always go back to the fact that it’s a US company. Are your products manufactured in the US too?

Josh Kossman:

Sure. We have some manufacturing in the US, out Hillsboro, Oregon. So we make modules, we make cells out of Hillsboro, Oregon. We’re also a global company, so we make products all over the world. We have manufacturing facilities in France, manufacturing facilities in Mexico, manufacturing facilities in Malaysia and the Philippines. We make products all over.

KATE GARRENS:

Okay Josh, well I just had one more question for you. I don’t want to take up your whole day here, but I wanted to find out what is SunPower’s philosophy on innovation?

Josh Kossman:

Yeah. Philosophy on innovation is to lead, lead by example. Again, we’ve got a long history of being ranked again, not only by us but by third party organizations as number one. We intend to stay that way.

KATE GARRENS:

Yeah.

Josh Kossman:

I know our CEO’s philosophy is, if you’re not innovating, you’re dying. And so we are always working to innovate to improve our products and to improve our value to homeowners and our partners in the field like EnergyONE.

KATE GARRENS:

That just remind me of, if you’re not first, you’re last. Remember?

Josh Kossman:

That’s right. Yeah.

KATE GARRENS:

I love that movie. Thank you so much for being here, Josh. I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to have a little fun with us on the SUNday Podcast.

Josh Kossman:

Thank you, Kate. Yeah, I had a lot of fun. Really appreciate the opportunity, we can do it again.

KATE GARRENS:

And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in to our SUNday Podcast, where we talk about all things renewable energy. Be sure to keep checking back for more of our upcoming podcasts.