Q-Cells North America underscores utility partnerships

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"We have been involved in more than 100 MW of solar installation in North America over the last two years, and we are still growing, says Schubert. "What the solar industry in North America needs to do is to get out of peak-watt thinking and into cents-per-kilowatt-hour thinking; what truly matters is return on investment. Our job is provide a predictable source of that on the long term," he says.

Thus far, the North American market is promising, relative to developments in Europe, Schubert suggests. "In the U.S. market, what we see is utilities taking a very active role in solar, although we see all kinds of shapes and colors of it. That’s a different approach from what we see within feed-in tariff markets, where utilities are sitting on the sidelines and watching," he suggests. "In this sense of business model perspective, the U.S. market is actually ahead of the German market," he adds.

Beyond economics, policy will also be an important requirement for future growth, Shubert suggests. "For the future of the North American market, what kind of monetary incentive we have will become less important," he says. "But going forward, the policies of network interconnection rules for solar will be the core topic of what we need on a state by state level," he says.

Supporting PG&E’s utility-owned program

Q-Cells North America is now days away from the turn-key completion of two solar plants it is developing for PG&E, the 20 MW Cantua and 10 MW Giffen plants, near Fresno, in California’s Central Valley. The two are important weathervanes for Q-Cells’ strategic plans for North American growth, because they are an early part of PG&E’s 250 MW ownership program. The utility also has state permission to add up to 250 additional megawatts to its sourcing portfolio through power purchase agreements with independent power producers. Q-Cells hopes to emulate such utility partnerships in many more states and locales in the future, suggests Schubert.

Within the PG&E program, Q-Cells also was recently selected as a preferred solar supplier for developments over the next five years, at a rate of 50 MW per year. With the addition of these plants, PG&E expects to have 20 percent of its delivered power derived from renewable energy sources, and expects to hit its California-mandated 33 percent level by 2020. PG&E indicates that last year it received 300 proposals for renewable energy projects.

Q-Cells turned to a variety of partners to deliver the Cantua and Giffen projects, including Tri-Technic, of Sonora, California, for the electrical installation of the solar equipment including inverters from Boston-based Satcon and solar combiner boxes from San Francisco-based AMtec Solar. Overall, some 450 acres of land were prepared for the two plants, which required 250,000 solar panels, 300 miles of copper cabling, and tens of thousands of racks, according to Tri-Technic.

Q-Cells in Starwood 60 MW project

Apart from the PG&E projects, last year Q-Cells got the go-ahead for the turn-key supply of a 10 MW plant as part of a combined 60 MW project, in Sault St. Marie Ontario, for Starwood Energy Group Global, LLC, a private energy investment firm. Touting the project as the second-largest in North America, the Starwood project was designed for Ontario’s Provincial Renewable Energy Standard Offer Program, under the auspices of the Ontario Power Authority, with final grid connection to PUC Distribution Inc.

Vertical integration helps guarantee bank participation

Q-Cells may be alone in the U.S. market in terms of the extent of its vertical integration and its turn-key capabilities in planning, delivering and operating a photovoltaic facility, suggests Shubert. The company’s core technology ranges from cells and modules, to plant design, construction, operation and maintenance. Q-Cells also is working further upstream in the energy conversion arena as well, Shubert points out.

"As a result, we are actively involved in driving down total system cost, and our performance guarantees help the investor to get financing," says Schubert. "We work on a project-by-project basis with banks and investors and are a reliable partner in getting a financial close," he says.

Among recent component advances for the company, in March last year, Q-Cells forged an 83 MW solar cell supply agreement with SunPower Corp. Q-Cells also announced last year the availability in North America of its Q.SMART modules, which feature a 13 percent average efficiency off the production line.