SunPower targets commercial market with new solar play

SunPower CEO Tom Werner, center, announcing Helix and talking solar at VERGE 2015 with GreenBiz CEO Eric Faurot.

In a bid to jumpstart the commercial solar power market, SunPower unveiled this week a solar platform for large commercial customers, called Helix, that integrates all the parts of solar power equipment and software management into one module and thereby simplifies the installation process.

SunPower CEO Tom Werner, speaking at VERGE 2015, said the market hasn't had such a turnkey solution before and that it could change how potential commercial customers regard solar. Typically, installation of solar panels has been viewed as a capital project needing some in-house contract management.

"You can mount panels on the roof with a 10-degree tilt with no tools at half the cost" with Helix, Werner said, comparing cost of installation to what he said are standard procedures. "Today you have an electrician on the roof with five cables, they strip those five and lead them into switch box and the inverter. We’ll have one cable." 

Werner said the panels SunPower developed and packaged with Helix are the most efficient on the market, in terms of energy delivered per space.

The commercial market

Even as residential solar installations have soared 76 product year over year in the United States and utility deployment of solar is growing, commercial sales of solar power have been flat, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

SunPower and Werner's contention is there are too many inefficiencies in the planning and installation of large commercial systems. But with the rapid fall in costs of solar panels and solar power, cost should no longer be a bottleneck, so making it easier for companies to go solar seemed a market approach to grab the commercial sector.

“Things are changing incredibly rapidly,” Werner said of the solar industry and energy market generally. “The costs are very competitive,” between solar and fossil fuel sources of power, “especially with plug and play. The economics are changing very fast and how you buy solar is changing very fast.”

He said that people don't realize the price parity of solar with fossil fuel powered electricity in many parts of the country now.

For SunPower, this is also a chance to bundle two recent innovations into one product. It has developed energy management software called EnergyLink that allows users to study patterns in electricity usage and demand and quantify potential energy savings by changing demand times. It also recently introduced new solar panels that achieve more energy intensity per square foot and those are packaged with Helix. On a side note, these panels are manufactured with a cradle-to-cradle design.

But it may be the turnkey nature of the product that could make a difference in the commercial market, according to an executive with one of its first customers. Robert Eckhardt, head of architecture and renewable development for Bed, Bath & Beyond, appeared with Werner onstage at VERGE. The retail chain has had solar power on some of its stores since 2006.

"Unless you've done a solar system installation you don't realize the amount of labor and time involved — pulling all the conduits and connecting wires to the lugs and making sure the connections" are right. "I think having a plug and play is a game changer and will increase the number of solar systems we put on stores," he said.

Granted, his company was a chosen to be an early, sort of pilot, customer.

SunPower did not disclose cost of the Helix product.

With the commercial market ripe for the taking, competitors have also jumped into the market with targeted systems. SolarCity recently unveiled a solar energy product tailor made for the small-to-midsize business market.

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