Maxeon Solar Technologies, the solar panel manufacturing spin-off of installation company SunPower, has a complex American origin story, but its modules aren’t particularly popular in the United States. The organization is trying to change that by increasing production at its Mexican module assembly plants and seeking sites for a US manufacturing center. The demand is there, said Jeff Waters, CEO of Maxeon, in an exclusive solar energy world maintenance, but of course it all depends on US trade laws and climate legislation.
Since SunPower’s 2020 spin-off, Maxeon has only had access to the US residential and small business market through its exclusive supply agreement with SunPower. Until the end of 2022, SunPower dealers can only install Maxeon panels and Maxeon cannot work with other US residential installers. From 2023, Maxeon will have the ability to sell products to the residential market and SunPower will have the ability to source non-premium panels from other manufacturers.
In the utility market, Maxeon was mostly shut out due to its Chinese manufacturing partners. When Maxeon started on its own, it received an investment from Chinese silicon wafer manufacturer Tianjin Zhonghuan Semiconductor Co. Thanks to the joint venture, Maxeon has a steady supply of wafers and the ability to assemble modules near. This Chinese involvement made it difficult for Maxeon to enter the US utility market.
“Because they’re produced in China, we really couldn’t sell them in the US because of the tariffs and AD/CVD, so we were shut out of the US market,” Waters said. “Shortly after our separation, we began to explore the possibility of us creating a panel for this Performance series that could go to the United States”
Maxeon offers two product families: Maxeon Solar Panels for residential and retail, and Performance Solar Panels for cost-sensitive markets and large-scale installations. Maxeon panels use Interdigital Back Contact (IBC) technology and are the premium class of panels that SunPower installers are familiar with. The Performance range uses mono-PERC cells in shingles and offers a bifacial offer.
To bring Performance panels to the U.S. market at scale, Maxeon moved PERC cell production to its Malaysian plant and expanded module assembly capacity at its Mexicali, Mexico plant to 1.8 GW . Exiting production out of China has already led to major supply contracts in the United States: Cypress Creek has agreed to take 300 MW, Origis Energy and Total Energies have both signed for 400 MW each and the Gemini project of nearly 1 GW outside of Las Vegas will use Performance panels.
“It gives us a great avenue in the United States that allows us to sell at competitive prices and avoid a lot of pricing issues,” Waters said. “We found that there is a huge appetite to work with a Nasdaq-listed public company that has more traditional Western business practices when it comes to long-term contracts and business relationships. We had a huge demand for products derived from [Mexico].”
Greater volume in Malaysia and Mexico was Phase 1 of Maxeon’s US plans. Phase 2 opens a 3 GW cell and module manufacturing facility in the United States. The company first announced U.S. manufacturing plans in early 2021 and is awaiting favorable legislation (like solar manufacturing for America [SEMA] Act) to go through Congress ever since.
“When we calculated the cost increase due to production in the United States – and it’s not just labor, it’s everything from infrastructure to energy costs – you need these incentives that were in SEMA to justify production in the US, otherwise the cost delta is way too much,” Waters said. “For us, we want to go big in the US – 3 GW. To do that in the US would be a boost for the solar supply chain. We know there is activity going on with others trying to get into ingot wafering and other parts of the supply chain, we so hopefully we can be part of building that tidal wave to get a supply chain back up and running here in the United States.
Maxeon also applied for a loan from the Department of Energy under the Title XVII Energy Policy Act of 2005 program. scale, require the recipient to work with new or significantly improved technologies. Maxeon complies requirement with its next-generation product which Waters says is “a new technology that is not used in China or around the world [other solar panel brands].” Specifically with Maxeon 7, the company innovates in back-end metallization processes.
“We told the DOE that we are waiting for SEMA to pass. If they arrive in the middle of the year, we are prepared aggressively. We are already making the final site selection and considering how to build the plant as quickly as possible,” he said. “If it was SEMA’s mid-2022 approval and DOE loan guarantee, you’d see us in production in early 2024.”
The US plant would likely move to the southeast to serve the east of the country while the Mexicali plant would continue to supply the west.
Until then, Maxeon continues its global reach. It launched the slim, frameless, glassless Maxeon Air solar panel in the European market and upgraded its performance warranty outside the United States to a 40-year warranty. Success in Europe, Asia and Australia could eventually lead to the US market – where Maxeon ultimately wants to be a top player.