Whelp, that was fast. Barely one year ago, the leading solar panel manufacturer SunPower added a US factory to its stable of assets, and now all of the company is ditching the whole idea of making solar panels — almost. The move will enable SunPower to focus on R&D along with energy storage and other hot clean tech sectors in the US. That’s great news in terms of accelerating the renewable energy transition, though it’s not clear how much longer the US factory will continue operating.
The Rise & (Almost) Fall Of A Solar Panel Factory
The factory in question is located in Hillside, Oregon. At its peak under the ownership of SolarWorld, the plant employed 800 workers. SunPower acquired the facility in October 2018 and kept it on life support with 200 workers into last winter.
As of last spring, though, the company was already looking around for a buyer.
That doesn’t mean SunPower was ready to give up altogether. The idea was to sell the whole facility and then lease back only the part that SunPower could use, keeping all 200 employees on the roster.
For now, those 200 workers remain on the company’s payroll. SunPower announced its move out of the global manufacturing sector yesterday, but apparently the plan is to keep the Hillsboro factory in operation.
SunPower Still Hearts Solar Panels
Normally when a solar panel manufacturer stops making stuff, that’s bad news. The SunPower announcement is a different story altogether.
The announcement involves spinning off the company’s manufacturing to Maxeon Solar Technologies, under the purview of Tianjin Zhonghuan Semiconductor Co., Ltd. The move is grounded in a long-running partnership between SunPower and TZS covering at least 7 other projects dating back to 2012.
The aim is to scale up the production of SunPower’s latest iteration of its Maxeon solar panels, the Maxeon® 5.
With Maxeon taking the lead on manufacturing and marketing, SunPower will concentrate on “next-generation” solar technologies as well as distributed generation, energy storage, and other energy services.
That explains why SunPower intends to keep hold of its vast dealer network in the US and Canada, including its cool PV design toolkit that enables property owners to see what their home would look like with solar panels.
Here’s the rundown from SunPower:
“The two companies will cooperate to develop and commercialize next generation solar panel technologies, with early stage research conducted by SunPower’s Silicon Valley-based research and development group, and deployment-focused innovation and scale-up carried out by Maxeon Solar.”
The US Energy Dept. Still Hearts Solar Panels
As for those 200 manufacturing jobs in Hillsboro, they could be around indefinitely. That’s partly because the US Department of Energy has continued to promote solar power aggressively, despite Trump* administration energy policies favoring fossil fuels.
The DOE provided significant support to the previous owner, SolarWorld, with the aim of ramping up solar manufacturing and solar jobs including jobs for veterans. SunPower has also received federal support for solar technology dating back to 2007. By keeping the US factory in its stable along with its R&D facility in Silicon Valley, SunPower keeps the door open for additional rounds of financial aid.
That support could ripple into SunPower’s areas of interest in the US, namely, distributed energy and energy storage. The Energy Department is particularly keen on distributed energy resources to power the sparkling green grid of the future.
Oregon is a hotspot for clean tech innovation of all types, so the factory also enables SunPower to keep a seat at the table of state-based support as well.
Those 200 jobs, though, are peanuts compared to the manufacturing plans for Maxeon Solar. That company will have both solar cell and solar panel manufacturing plants under its wing in France, Malaysia, Mexico, and the Philippines.
Interestingly, Maxeon will continue to market its solar panels globally under the SunPower brand. It seems that US manufacturers still possess that special something, at least in terms of name recognition if not in employment numbers.
On the down side, the Hillsboro facility will not get its hands on the Maxeon 5, at least for now. According to SunPower, the Malaysia facility will get bragging rights.
Why Malaysia? Why not! We’re filing this one under Y for You Knew This Was Coming. Malaysia happens to be one of the countries that manufacturers are reportedly using to get around the Trump tariffs.
All things being equal the new Maxeon Technologies deal will enable SunPower to bring more solar panels to the US, regardless of the Commander-in-Chief’s love affair with fossil fuels.
So When Will ExxonMobil Get On Board?
In another interesting twist, the global fossil fuel company Total has a big hand in all of this. Total is a shareholder in SunPower and it also has a connection with Maxeon Technologies.
Last month Total announced the start of construction on a 52-megawatt solar power plant in Japan that will sport thousands of Maxeon solar panels.
Total is one of several global fossil fuel stakeholders that are beginning to diversify into renewable energy, including wind power as well as solar power. The going has been too slow to make a dent in the Earth’s climate problem, but the investments are large and growing.
ExxonMobil, on the other hand, has been doubling down on its identity as a gas and oil producer. In a rare concession to renewables (or greenwashing, as the case may be), the company recently launched a new ad campaign pitching its investment in algae biofuel.
We’re just as much fans of algae biofuel as the next person, but algae has a long way to go before it can compete mano-a-mano with fossil. Meanwhile, wind and solar technologies are here-and-now.