Sunpower CEO Says Grid Independence Is Naive

Tom Werner, Sunpower CEO, has made some comments recently about the potential for home owners to go off the grid. He doesn’t seem to have much regard for the notion. Let’s look at some of his statements.

thomas werner

”I’d go further and say that grid independence is naïve. That’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future. There is a need for the grid, the grid plays an important role and will for the foreseeable future. SunPower has never taken the position that the utilities will be obsolete.”

As CEO of a large corporation he has to speak sensitively in public so he doesn’t offend business partners and create bad press. That’s a given. He’s probably well aware that there are already people living off-grid.

Some of them may be survivalists or fed up with cities and conventional lifestyles. Others simply are ahead of the curve with renewable technology and environmental awareness.

It also depends what you mean by off-grid. A couple near San Francisco powered their Nissan Leaf EV with solar panels, but their house is still grid connected. The utility power is there if they need it, but the intention is to not be dependent upon it.

Also, consider that a company in Alabama can generate about 98% of its electricity from solar power and has its own local grid, so it might be considered off the main grid, or mostly so.

“I think that there’s a business model evolution for utilities but they will always have an important role with the grid. I think that we’ll see less centralised power generation and less of the ‘hub and spoke’ model of utilities and a smarter grid that can do both hub and spoke and distributed generation and that’s always been SunPower’s position. We agree that utilities will always have an important role and in fact what’ll happen is it’ll emphasize a more intelligent grid and less emphasis on generation.”

Grid defection could be motivated by consumers saving money over the long-term by operating their own home and business energy systems. It could be motivated by a sense of pride in operating free of utilities, which some say have a sort of monopoly on energy in America. It could be motivated by having a love of technology and wanting to install solar and wind because of that passion.

Obviously, some are also motivated by wanting to wean themselves off of any fossil fuels permanently. The motivation for full or partial grid defection could be a blend of all or some of these desires.

In San Diego, about a dozen years ago, extreme rate hikes for consumers caused quite an uproar. Price volatility and a lack of alternatives could also drive consumers to want their own power sources.

“We believe that we’ll become what we’ve labelled as ‘energy service provider’ and the broad concept would be that the combination of storage with solar with energy management gives you the consumer perhaps total control of your energy bill, certainly way more control of your energy bill than you’ve ever had. Now,  we don’t believe that we’ll become a utility however.

We’ll partner with utilities on micro grids and community-based solar and we will free the consumer and give them way more control of their energy bill in general. That’s where we’ve made up ground in the last couple of years…and an area we’re investing more heavily in.”

We’ve all heard the term democratization of the media, because we live in the age of blogs, and social media. It is possible there will be a democratization of energy too, where every day homeowners generate their own power and share some of it with local communities to bring in some money.

Add 3D printing to the mix, and local people might just start becoming entrepreneurs out of their garages, just like compunter enthusiasts did to start the PC revolution. Imagine a Steve Jobs of energy, or a hundred of them.

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About the Author

has been writing about solar energy for years on sites like CleanTechnica, Care2, and Planetsave. He enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about protecting life on this planet. You can connect with Jake on Google Plus.
  • Marksolar

    Let’s not forget that utility scale solar is a big part of Sunpower’s business.

    • Offgridman

      I had wondered about that, or if their investments in storage or control of the patented tech to operate it was behind some of the other solar companies, so a preference to see the continuation of the grid.

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    • GCO

      Yet Sunpower would sell more modules, not less, with people going off-grid: to compensate for low winter production, off-grid setups typically include much more PV than grid-tied, yet this large capacity is mostly wasted in summer and doesn’t displace other sources… including utility-scale solar.

  • GCO

    I completely disagree with the suggestion in this article that going off-grid is somehow better for the environment: for the same yearly output, a grid-tied system would require significantly less PV, no battery and no backup generator. Less resources, same effect.

    Or said differently, for the same amount of PV, grid-tied systems produce much more, therefore having a larger impact, especially as this production (so far) mostly correlates with peak/daytime usage.
    Being on-grid is greener.

    I also strongly doubt about the economics: it’d take some seriously expensive connection fees to compensate for the extra costs of an off-grid system.

    Tom Werner is right IMHO.

    • Vensonata

      You are right. But there is a tantalizingly large saving to be had in land prices, and quality of life off grid. The numbers usually dwarf any extra cost of off grid systems. I suspect we are about to see a monkey wrench thrown into the real estate market machinery and also into city planning. All it takes is a simple, reasonably consumer friendly off grid package at say 50% above grid price and it will sell like hot cakes. Just think about the number of people who prefer a private car to public transport, even though they have greater expenses and maintenance, danger, insurance etc.

    • Jake R

      Does it say in the article that being off-grid is better for the environment?