SunPower brings its A game to high efficiency modules

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From pv magazine USA.

Making high-efficiency solar at scale is a hard game, one that has bested a fair share of companies. And while U.S. panel maker SunPower has managed to become one of the world’s largest PV manufacturers on the back on of its Maxeon Interdigitated Back Contact (IBC) solar cells – the highest-efficiency solar products available on the mass market – the company has struggled for years to gain profitability.

Today, SunPower took a major step towards re-imagining its business with the launch of its A-Series PV modules, the first product to incorporate its New Generation Technology (NGT) cells in the U.S. market.

EnergySage ranking of PV module manufacturers based on the highest efficiency product offered.

Like Maxeon, the New Generation Technology is an IBC product, with layers of copper and aluminum that extract electricity off the back of the cell and no grid lines or busbars on the front. And like SunPower’s X-Series and E-Series, the A-Series panels offer very high efficiencies, from 21.5-22.3% at the module level.

That is still higher than any mass-market rival, including SunPower’s biggest U.S. competitor LG Solar – even when accounting for LG’s new NeON R product, which, like SunPower’s, uses IBC cells.

War on costs

But not only is NGT based on much larger, 6 in wafers – a development that is likely the result of ongoing advances in monocrystalline ingot casting in China – but SunPower says it uses a cheaper manufacturing process. The company has consistently refused to reveal how much NGT reduces costs but CEO Tom Werner has said, through manufacturing efficiencies and higher throughput, NGT will be on par with mono-PERC technology.

A SunPower cell.
Image: Paul Sakuma Photography/PaulSakuma.com

That’s the right benchmark to be aiming for. Driven by the rise of massive mono ingot and wafer factories owned by LONGi and Zhonghuan and the spread of PERC cell technology, mono-PERC products are coming to dominate utility-scale as well as rooftop markets, and both Jinko and Hanwha’s new U.S. factories are producing mono-PERC output.

Those two factories would have a price advantage against SunPower’s imported products in the U.S. market, were it not for the exemption from tariffs SunPower secured. As such, SunPower has an advantage, as Jinko, Hanwha and nearly all the other companies with PV module factories in the United States must still pay Section 201 tariffs on cells they import.

Over 400 W

Not only is SunPower’s A-Series based on larger wafers, the overall module is 10% longer than the X-Series or E-Series modules, at 40 in x 72.2 in –the company says that the weight is largely unaffected. That allows SunPower to produce the first 400 W-plus module for the rooftop market, with A-Series products coming in at 400 and 415 W.

The SunPower A-Series, on the right, is 10% longer than the X-Series.

SunPower says it expects to ship up to 100 MW of A-Series modules this year, and to reach 250 MW of annual manufacturing capacity by the year’s end. By the time it completely converts its Fab 3 in Malaysia to NGT, it will have 800 MW of capacity, some of it enabled by higher throughput in the NGT process.

It remains to be seen if that will enable SunPower to turn a profit. The company has taken all the right steps, both in reducing costs and shifting focus to rooftop markets where the advantages of its high-efficiency products reap the greatest reward – and has had to pay for those investments. Now we will see if all of that work pays off in dollars and cents.