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SunPower To Launch Solar Leases Overseas

Distributed generation and international markets will be the twin focus for SunPower over the next few years as the company makes a big push for using its concentrating PV technology and selling residential leases abroad, SunPower executives said during its analyst day presentations Wednesday.

Selling solar panels and related equipment for distributed generation, either via its dealers or through SunPower's own project development business, already made up about two thirds of the megawatts deployed in 2012.

Distribution generation, which typically refers to sales in the residential and commercial segments, will increase its share slightly by 2015. At the same time, the company expects the international market to soak up a greater share of the megawatts deployed over the next three years.

The Silicon Valley company, which began offering residential leases in the United States two years ago, plans to introduce them in France next, said Howard Wenger, president of regions, during his presentation. Overall, SunPower will launch or increase its marketing and sales effort of its leases or other distributed generation products, including energy storage, in seven countries: United States, France, Japan, Germany, Australia, Spain and Italy.

Residential leases have been a bright spot for SunPower, which, like every other solar manufacturer, has had to reduce production and cut costs to try to minimize financial losses in a global market that has seen an over-supply of solar panels in past three years. Demand for its leases outstripped the amount of funds available for supporting them during the first quarter of this year, CEO Tom Werner said during a conference call to discuss the company's earnings earlier this month. The company has raised funds from Citi, Credit Suisse and, more recently, the U.S. Bancorp. SunPower also puts its own money into those residential lease funds.

The United States has been the biggest market for SunPower in the past two years. In 2012, the country accounted for 70 percent of its sales, according to its annual report. In 2011, U.S. sales made up of 53 percent while in 2010, it reached only 28 percent. The emergence of solar incentives in many states and a big push by major utilities in California to meet a renewable energy mandate have made the United States an important market.

In California, SunPower is building some of the largest solar power plants in the world. The company has installed over 90 percent of the solar panels for the 250MW power plant called California Valley Solar Ranch, which is owned by NRG Solar. SunPower started building two projects, totaling 579 MW, that their owner, MidAmerican Solar, called Antelope Valley Solar Projects.               

But like its rival First Solar, SunPower has been eyeing opportunities emerging markets abroad. Both companies have talked about the Middle East, Australia, China and Australia as their main targets.

In China, SunPower announced a joint venture with three local companies last December that will work on manufacturing and power plant development using SunPower's concentrating PV system called C7. SunPower said it would put up roughly $15 million for a 25 percent stake in the Inner Mongolia-based joint venture.

SunPower CEO Tom Werner told analysts that he has been to Inner Mongolia twice over the past six months. The company expects to start building a manufacturing plant there later this year or early next year.

"C7 will become an increasingly important part of how we go to market with power plants," Werner said.

C7 uses parabolic mirrors to concentrate the sunlight seven times onto SunPower's silicon solar cells. Each C7 system includes a single-axis tracker to oriented the panel to follow the sun's movement throughout the day.

SunPower executives said their connection to Total, the French oil and gas giant that owns a 66 percent stake in SunPower, should enable the company to win projects in the Middle East,  where Total has been doing business for nearly a century. Solar companies are all eyeing Saudi Arabia as a possible big market and are waiting for the government to kickoff its solar incentive program.

SunPower also gave a third-quarter sales forecast on Wednesday. It expects to generate $540 million to $590 million in revenues and post losses of $0.25 to $0.15 per share.

For 2013, it expects to report $2.6 billion to $2.7 billion in sales. It could post losses of $0.05 per share or up to $0.20 per share in earnings for the year.

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Ucilia Wang is a California-based freelance journalist who writes about renewable energy. She previously was the associate editor at Greentech Media and a staff writer covering the semiconductor industry at Red Herring. In addition to Renewable En...

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