Phaesun: Generating income locally

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Interview: Phaesun CEO Tobias Zwirner tells pv magazine that the main focus of the medium-sized wholesaler and system integrator, based in the Bavarian town of Memmingen, is offering customized systems for commercial off-grid stand-alone applications, and thus generating income locally.

pv magazine: 2013 was not an easy year for the industry. How was it for you?

Zwirner: The year started rather slowly but from April onwards business picked up. Our turnover, approximately €14 million, is on a par with 2012 and we were able to stabilize the number of employees at a total of about 40. Our components business grew slightly in 2013, whereas larger projects tended to slump.

pv magazine: Currently, many links are opening up between the off-grid market and the grid-connected market, such as grid-connected back-up systems, mini-grids and hybrid systems, especially in the higher performance range. Are you involved in these areas?

Zwirner: Our basic motivation is independence, as a company and for the system solutions that we offer. We therefore focus on off-grid applications in pure stand-alone operation for those regions where there is no electricity grid. We do not offer grid-connected systems, backup systems or solutions for mini-grids or power conversion units. There are already plenty of other companies that cover this field, so we focus on our own strengths as an expert in the entire off-grid area, away from all power grids.

pv magazine: What about Phaesun’s own power supply? Are you still connected to the grid in Memmingen?

Zwirner: At the moment we are, yes, but not for much longer. We want to make ourselves completely independent from the grid this year. This is a field-test and pilot project for us that we also want to show our customers. We are currently planning for self-provision with a performance of 3,000-4,000 amp hours at 48 volts battery power, as well as a roof-mounted PV system with 20 to 30 kilowatts.

pv magazine: That sounds exciting. You mentioned earlier that your components business grew slightly in 2013. Can you further expand upon this?

Zwirner: The individual components sale is our core business, which we are continuously developing. In addition to this important business, we now want to offer even more tailor-made system solutions for off-grid, stand-alone applications with which our customers can generate income. So it isn’t just about, for example, a family in Africa being provided with light from a solar-powered pico lamp in the evenings and not having to buy fuel for kerosene-powered lamps; but also that, especially in rural areas, they can generate additional income locally. The decisive step is the creation of Business Opportunities with Solar System (BOSS).

pv magazine: Can you give us any examples?

Zwirner: There are so many. Just think of the various services provided by solar kiosks. For example, one customer of Horn Renewables, our sales partner in Somaliland, bought a 160 liter solar-powered cooler and a solar-powered battery charging station so he could offer chilled drinks and charge mobile phones. He invested $2,500 but was able to increase sales by 40%. Now he can sell 45 drinks per day at $0.60 cents each instead of the previous $0.45 cents because they are chilled. This makes an additional income of about $203 a month. Furthermore, he charges 15 mobile phones a day, earning an additional monthly income of $67. This means that the investment will pay for itself in less than a year. Meanwhile, the kiosk owner has invested more than $400 to upgrade his solar home system so that he can operate a ceiling fan.

pv magazine: Are there any examples for mobile applications?

Zwirner: Yes, have a look here … (points around the corner): our BOSS sunny power unit. A self-contained bike trailer or cart with integrated 130 watt or 175 watt module, a 12 volt 138 amp-hour (Ah) battery or two 12 volt batteries with 85 amp-hours (Ah), charge controller and, optionally, an inverter. Thermoelectric circuit breakers and passive ventilation are integrated to protect the system from overheating. In addition, there is still plenty of interior cargo area. Small business owners can operate 12 volt DC or 230 volt AC-powered water pumps with the power unit and offer pumping services in off-grid rural areas, or operate color printers for photographers with mobile "photo studios" and charge cameras. Carpenters can accommodate, for example, a small circular saw, a grinder and a drill and jigsaw, which they can operate on the move with solar power, enabling them to offer on-site services.

How many times have you sold the solar trailer? And how expensive is it?

We are currently in the launch phase – our partner, Bavaria Energy Systems, has produced about 40 units. The retail price with an inverter is about €3,000.

pv magazine: As good as the idea is and as interesting as the product may seem, isn’t the investment nevertheless too much for many poorer families in, for example, rural areas of Africa? Or do you provide funding?

Zwirner: We are currently in negotiations with micro-lenders in, for example, Burkina Faso, as well as with GIZ [the German Society for International Cooperation] in order to be able to give the end user a jump start with low-interest loans. We also provide a business plan as an extra service. For NGOs it may be more interesting to support such Business Opportunities projects rather than purely aid projects, because this way the money is paid back. It’s all about helping people help themselves, not gifts.

Read more of the interview with Phaesun CEO Tobias Zwirner in the January issue of pv magazine.