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Sound Engineering podcast: An alum predicts a solar disruption

Tom Werner, a 1982 UW-Madison industrial and systems engineering alumnus and CEO of solar energy company SunPower Inc., visited the UW-Madison campus on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, to give a talk about his company’s growth and what the future holds for solar energy. In these excerpts from the talk, Werner argues that solar energy doesn’t just have staying power, but also has the potential disrupt the energy industry.

Following is a transcript of the podcast:
Scott Gordon: It’s not surprising that the CEO of one of the world’s leading solar-energy companies would defend the viability of solar and offer some well-honed rebuttals to common criticisms of solar. But Tom Werner, CEO of SunPower Inc. and an alumnus of the UW-Madison College of Engineering’s  Industrial and Systems Engineering Department, went a step further when he visited campus on September 6, 2013, to give a talk at Union South. Werner argued that solar energy is not only more practical than many people think, but that it’s also poised to shake up energy markets in a profound way.

Tom Werner: The state of the solar industry, renewable industry in general but for sure the solar industry, is at a phenomenally important time. And the fact that we can sell energy that’s comparable to conventional energy, which some of you in the room will dispute, I’m sure, at some point here—you’re wrong. We can compete. That’s going to be fundamentally disruptive to the way conventional energy is delivered.

Scott Gordon: During his talk, Werner elaborated on where solar energy does and doesn’t work in the United States.

Tom Werner: Solar is disrupting conventional electricity in Hawaii as we speak. Japan, same thing. New Jersey’s a very big market for solar. Not so much, hardly at all, in Wisconsin. When I say “solar energy” to most of you, it doesn’t mean much. If you were in California, it’s the opposite. People are like, “What do you mean, you don’t have a solar system?”

Scott Gordon: But he also noted that there’s even more interest in solar overseas.

Tom Werner: The short story is, China wants solar energy badly now. They set a goal of 35 gigawatts by 2015. That’s more than America’s ever installed, cumulative. They’re going to do 10 gigawatts this year. When China says they’re going to do something, they do it big. The reason why they want it is because you can’t breathe the air in most parts of China. The pollution is horrific. The number-one market this year in solar is China.

Scott Gordon: Werner didn’t shy away from discussing the tension that exists between solar companies like SunPower and more traditional utility companies.

Tom Werner: I went to see P&E and the CEO was telling me to get coffee for him. Very dismissive. By the way, when I was sitting with him, the market cap of SunPower was bigger than his, but I didn’t say that to him. But he was literally like, “Why am I meeting with you?” He subsequently has been fired, and I’m still here.

Scott Gordon: Still, he acknowledged that before the big disruption happens, the solar-energy industry has to overcome a few obstacles.

Tom Werner: It’s not intermittent. It’s very predictable. It makes energy when the sun’s out. Then you say, “Well, but there’s clouds.” But the clouds aren’t simultaneously over the entire array. So you can actually predict the output of a solar system fairly well. You’re right, if you add storage it’s perfect. Solar is not dispatchable. You can’t use it when you want. When you get storage, that’s the killer combination.

Scott Gordon: Learn more about accomplished UW-Madison engineering alumni at badgerengineers.engr.wisc.edu.

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