SunPower CEO: Australia could be a world leader in distributed energy & solar PV

Australia has been named as a potential leader in the global shift towards decentralised renewable energy generation by the head of one of the world’s biggest solar manufacturers – provided it can establish a stable policy base.

Tom Werner, the CEO of US-based SunPower, says the combination of good sun, open spaces, and high electricity costs make Australia one of the world’s most attractive solar markets, as PV costs continue to fall and battery storage helps balance supply and demand.

But Werner warns that constant shifting on renewable energy policies will cause solar costs to rise in Australia, rather than fall.

“The economics of solar work better in Australia than in most places in America,” said Werner, noting that in the US, the long-term trend in solar is clear because the economics are so strong.

In an interview with RenewEconomy, Werner stressed it was important to understand what was actually driving the economics, and to appreciate that solar “actually does work” – a message not always shared by the incumbents.

“People want solar and it is economic, so it is going to happen,” he said. “The question is how do you get there?”

That question has caused a massive pushback from incumbent generators – in Australia, the US and Europe – about the growth of distributed solar, and triggered a regulatory wrestling match about how solar should be priced.

“It feels like the (Australian political) goal is a good goal, which is to build a system that does not put the prices up. That’s a good goal, the question is how you get there. It seems like that if the cost of solar is coming down, then attacking solar is probably not the best way to get costs down.”

Werner will speak at the Energy Networks Association conference this week in Melbourne, a meeting of network operators who are facing the biggest challenge to their business models in more than a century.

“We do not know how it will evolve. It will be messy, that’s what we do know,” Werner says. “But it is great to be in our position because we are a disruptor. We do have to continue to get costs our out, that’s our messy side of it, and to create systems that match generation with demand.”

The key to this will be in energy storage, which Werner says is at a similar stage to solar five years ago, just before its massive cost fall.

SunPower is looking at deploying systems that combine solar PV and storage and will soon announce its first pilot schemes in Australia, likely to be rolled out through its partly owned local retailer Diamond Energy. It is also looking at microgrid solutions in Australia, although it sees the biggest potential in the commercial rooftop market.

© 2014 Solar Choice Pty Ltd

Giles Parkinson