SunPower’s Maxeon Solar Cell Technology: An Audit via Life’s Principles

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By Paige Kuplic, Carol Gustafson, and Jeremy Frey

Life’s Principles represent inspirational guidelines gleaned from a fundamental reconnection with nature, an ethos that celebrates sustainability and an emulation of nature’s genius. This collection of patterns, are representative of the survival strategies that have worked for over 3 billion years. There are six main Principles: adapt to changing conditions, be locally attuned and responsive, use life-friendly chemistry, be resource efficient, integrate development with growth, and evolve to survive. With Life’s Principles as our lens, we took a deep look at the solar industry, SunPower’s Maxeon solar cells in particular, and evaluated them.

maxeonThe enthusiasm for free and readily available energy from the sun has fueled the solar industry’s rise as a major player in clean energy. A powerful leader in the field, SunPower’s award-winning Maxeon solar cell currently boasts a high level of capture at 24%. With a goal of reaching the status of a Zero-Waste-to-Landfill Company, SunPower works toward greater resource efficiency, intending to recycle solar cell parts (although a lack of enough obsolete panels currently prevents this option). When approaching an audit of Maxeon via the strenuous perspective that Life’s Principles offer, Maxeon’s strengths and growing edge is illuminated. We wonder what conditions conducive to the long-term generation of life await after further development?

Maxeon’s third-generation technology integrates a solid copper base with feedback technology that adapts to changing conditions. Optimized for long term operation with a significant reduction in failure, the design reduces reflection of light offered by other cells, capturing some of that light instead. Like most cells, Maxeon is a modular component installed in panels, and integrated platforms of capture and production that cultivate cooperative relationships providing a significant measure of scale.

The Maxeon cell and its innate ability to balance integration and growth to support the evolution of changing conditions from the micro-scale of the weekend camper, to the macroscale of commercial and utility deployments provides adaptation to changing conditions. The fabrication of the cell is performed in the Asian market requiring increased transportation costs to the final consumer and the environment while fostering the use of copper, a finite resource.

The chemistry behind solar cell manufacturing is not life-friendly, relying on hazardous chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid and harsh processes that produce greenhouse gasses and toxic waste water, which are dangerous and non-sustainable for workers and the environment. Changing component manufacturing to life-conducive processes will provide a life-generating energy solution.

While Maxeon’s design is not yet fully based on a contribution to life, and mistakes are not incorporated in an attempt to encourage ongoing idea generation, the design does build on what works. Furthermore, the design provides opportunities for information and idea cross-pollination, as well as receiving and incorporating an influx of new information.

Maxeon Solar Cell Technology does not co-evolve with other system parts in order to increase the rate of adaptation, and does not maintain integrity via constant additions of energy, information, and matter. But, no small feat, Maxeon does withstand disturbance while maintaining function, duplicates critical elements, incorporates a variety of different forms,  processes, and systems to meet functional needs over time and space. Unfortunately, while the design’s functions are distributed, they have yet to be de-centralized. Maxeon’s efficiency far outshines others, creating more energy amidst fewer panels.

With the dying light of oil and gas, many of us automatically assume solar power is a clean and healthy way to obtain energy but a growing number of savvy consumers know this to not be entirely accurate. When solar companies like SunPower continue their leadership in cleaning up their production processes, solar power becomes a clean(er) energy source. The solar industry is on a trajectory to capture solar energy while expending little energy itself. What if we were able to transform the free and unlimited power of the sun without a single negative consequence, like plants and their superb photosynthesizing abilities, or the green sea slug that harnesses algal chloroplasts, or even the oriental hornet that converts light to electricity in its body?

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Reprinted with permission.

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