Beyond solar panels

One year is all it took for global renewables leader Renesola to conquer the Australian solar market. The introduction of complementary energy-saving products this year looks set to guarantee the manufacturer’s role in Australia’s green revolution.

Renesola (NYSE: SOL) began life in 2005 in China as a specialist manufacturer of crystalline wafers for solar panels. In the years following, this small R&D-focused technology company experienced significant growth in every direction.

Listing on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM in 2006 and then the New York Stock Exchange in 2008, the company gradually extended its reach across the globe until in December 2011 it had offices in Asia-Pacific, Europe, America and the Middle East. Throughout, its technology continued to advance in terms of efficiency and endurance – always keeping ahead of the tide – while its product range diversified into polycrystalline wafers, micro inverters and other photovoltaic system components. It now has 31 subsidiaries, a global sales network and an established reputation for quality.

The manufacturer’s introduction to Australia little more than a year ago was headed by Australian General Manager Derek Marsden, an electrical engineer with five years’ experience in managing solar businesses. Renesola head-hunted him to set up its Australian subsidiary in May 2012, and it was an offer Derek “couldn’t refuse”. He was immediately attracted to Renesola’s strong focus on engineering and R&D, as well as its financial strength and grand aspirations.

“We didn’t officially open the Australian office until mid-late November 2012, so the business is still very new – but we have really come forward in leaps and bounds,” says Derek of his first year the helm of Renesola Australia Pty Ltd.

“Initial sales figures for our first full calendar year put us ahead of all our competitors in terms of the volume of modules imported into Australia last year.”

Derek estimates that Renesola must have supplied products to almost hundreds of projects throughout the course of the year, ranging from 30kW to 100kW systems. One recent project saw Blue Tongue Solar install around 300kW of Renesola solar power modules across the Western Australian training base of airline China Southern. Phase one of the project was completed in December, with the next phase forthcoming.

Renesola also supplies products on a not-for-profit basis under its ongoing community engagement programme. “The idea is to look at projects on a case-by-case basis where there is a need but no finance for buying solar power or energy-efficient products,” Derek explains.

“Our first community engagement project, completed in December 2013, was supplying a 5kW system for a regional community centre in Yea, Victoria. This was a carbon-neutral building constructed on world-renowned heritage-listed wetlands, primarily through donations; the only thing that fell through for them was getting a grant for solar power, so we jumped in and installed a 5kW system on the roof. Our community engagement programme will continue this year, and we are always on the lookout for worthy projects.” (Click here to view article)

World-leading wafers

Renesola has taken a distributive approach in Australia, enabling it to supply its products to businesses directly. The domestic market has traditionally been the biggest one, says Derek, but as the government support schemes for home systems have dried up, the commercial market is starting to grow.

Having introduced a number of new products to the Australian market throughout 2013, Renesola now designs, manufactures and supplies every component required for a domestic or commercial solar system, including inverters, racking and energy storage. But its wafers and solar modules remain the stars of the show.

The Virtus I Quasi-Monocrystalline solar module and the Virtus II Polycrystalline solar module both stand out in the market for having an excellent temperature coefficient, as well as very high module conversion efficiency. They are the result of a great deal of attention to detail – right down to using diamond wire to cut wafers faster and more accurately than otherwise possible, to create a higher-quality wafer. The modules are also rated to PID-FREE, meaning elimination of PID – Potential Induced Degradation, ensuring a longer performing module.

“High humidity, high temperature and high voltage are the three killers for solar panels, and, depending on the environment, these factors can quickly damage the panel’s performance over its lifetime,” Derek explains.

“So the panel’s life is significantly compromised unless they’re PID-FREE. Achieving PID-FREE is a bit of a dark art, it’s a combination of many things: the quality of your wafer, then your solar cell and the EVA encapsulants – and PID-resistant EVAs are not cheap. Once you’ve put all that together you have a panel that costs a little more, but you know that it’s going to perform well and last a very long time in harsh conditions.”

Derek adds that the technology within the Virtus II, in particular, is a “well-guarded secret” arising from Renesola’s long experience in creating world-leading wafers.

“We started out as a wafer manufacturer and that’s where our strengths lie in regards to the technology,” he remarks.

“Basically, the Virtus II utilises control nucleation, where the grain structure is made more uniform to promote the movement of electrons through the cell. That means less energy is lost as it travels from the panel to the inverter. It’s the result of us putting a lot of time and effort into the R&D of the wafers, and we believe it is our main advantage in the marketplace.”

In theory, having a polycrystalline structure makes the Virtus II better at capturing the sun’s rays from different angles, making it more efficient in a fixed array; whereas the Quasi-Monocrystalline Virtus I is more suited to a larger-scale tracking array.

But Derek says they both perform so well in both applications that it often comes down to aesthetics – whether the customer prefers the blue Virtus II or the black Virtus I.

The complete package

Renesola also manufactures inverters: both the standard string variety and the newer micro variety. Derek deems Renesola’s release of micro-inverters to the Australian market in 2013 a major milestone, due to the benefits they offer.

String inverters are large, often wall-mounted and connect together all the panels in an array, combining their electric outputs. This contributes towards a large accumulative DC voltage running down from the building’s roof to the inverter, increasing the likelihood of PID. It also means that if one panel of the array is shaded – by chimneys, leaves, etc. – the output of the entire array is affected, dragging it down by perhaps as much as 70%.

Micro-inverters are attached directly to each panel in an array, converting the panel’s electricity immediately from DC to AC. This limits the voltage running through any part of the system, reducing PID, and converts it to AC at an earlier point, promoting a higher level of safety. Micro-inverters also eliminate the domino effect that shading has on string-inverter-connected systems, because they ensure that shading on one panel will affect the output of that panel alone.

“The general consensus is that there’s probably about a 15% better output over the life of an array using micro-inverters, compared with one using a string inverter,” says Derek. “Using micros provides greater safety and a higher yield; and the products that we distribute have a 25-year warranty, so you have peace of mind that the warranty on the micro-inverter matches that of the solar panel.”

Renesola also began offering its own racking and roof mounting products this year, enabling it to provide a complete kit for a setting up a solar system. Derek says there will be a big push to promote these products next year, while larger racking systems suitable for solar farms are under development.

New products

Further products are on the way in 2014, including energy storage units and LED lighting. Due to their expense, the energy storage units – lithium ion batteries that store energy generated by the solar modules, to be used later on – will be targeted more at the commercial market, where the payback will be more achievable.

“The payback on the energy storage is a bit longer than you might like, but it will come down as the volumes increase and we have already improved it substantially to get it to where it is now,” Derek comments.

“However, on some of the larger commercial or off-grid systems, these batteries will have application straight away. It’s not an off-the-shelf product – in each case we will design it in cooperation with the client.”

Once energy storage technology becomes more affordable for the domestic market, it could be used in a number of different ways to complement each customer’s energy use. For example, someone who’s out of the house at work all day and only returns home at night – when it’s dark and the solar panels are no longer generating energy – could save up energy generated during the day and use it at night, rather than buying it back from the grid at a higher rate than it would have sold excess power for during the day. In the long run this could save a significant amount of both energy and money.

Renesola plans to launch LED lighting in the next couple of months, as a separate but complimentary product range to its solar products.

“I’ve always thought that the way to ‘green’ any home is to reduce energy consumption first, and begin generating green energy second,” says Derek.

“Providing energy-efficient products helps to make solar energy generation more cost-effective and affordable, because if a household is using less energy it needs a smaller system to offset all its energy use.”

LED lighting will be the first of many complementary products offered by Renesola that are designed to help households and businesses reduce their carbon footprint. The company is looking right now at what else it could introduce under its green homes strategy, which will be a major goal for 2014.

Aiming high

Renesola took the Australian market by storm last year for a reason – its technology is simply some of the best and good value out there. Its PID-FREE modules have industry-leading temperature coefficients and the company puts a great deal of R&D into improving efficiency. Never, however, if it means sacrificing a module’s cost effectiveness.

“We’ve always thought that no improvement should increase the cost of a module’s dollar-per-watt, as it just doesn’t make sense,” Derek remarks.

“You can have the most efficient solar panels no bigger than a postage stamp, but if you have to pay $5 per watt, what have you achieved? You haven’t made solar more accessible to people.”

While committed to lowering the price of solar power, Renesola will never cut corners in terms of quality and performance in order to compete with cheaper offerings. Derek says the company is neither the cheapest nor the most expensive solar manufacturer, but is very competitive.

One of Renesola’s goals for 2014 is to open further offices in different parts of Australia, so that customers will be able to order products from closer-by and pay a lower freighting cost. Transporting products over shorter distances will also help reduce Renesola’s carbon emissions, bringing it closer to its carbon-neutral target. The company’s forthcoming range of LED lighting products will play an important role in this goal as well – becoming part of the existing solar power systems at Renesola offices across the country.

Derek deems LED lighting “the next frontier” in greening and believes the market could overtake that of solar. This goes some way to explaining why Renesola’s goal is to conquer not only the solar market, but the entire green energy market.

“We are aiming to become a major distributor of LED products in Australia, and we will continue to release more green products over the coming years,” says Derek.

“We became a leader in the solar market in a very short period of time, so I am confident that we can go on to become a leader in supplying all green energy products.”

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