Interview: Speaking off-grid with Phaesun

The World Speaks Off-Grid: the slogan that accompanied this year’s Off-Grid Experts Workshop – co-organized between Phaesun and Steca Electronik with Studer Innotec, SolarWorld and Morningstar as event partners – encapsulated the high-level discussions had by the 450 experts drawn from all over the world.

There were 35 expert lectures held across the two days, covering everything from system sizing and monitoring technology to business model innovation and learning to work with the challenges posed by the solar market’s own travails.

In between these lectures were a number of interactive workshops, 40 exhibitors and an endless stream of impromptu gatherings that highlighted just how complex and compassionate the sector is. Tobias Zwirner, managing director of event organizer Phaesun, shared his thoughts on this year’s event with pv magazine.

pv magazine: What were the chief headlines to emerge from the Off-Grid Experts Workshop this year?

Tobias: The main feedback from 2013 from the manufacturers, exhibitors and some of the guests was the suggestion to hold the workshop every two years. We have a relatively high proportion of African guests and it is quite an effort for many, in terms of visas, logistics and costs, to attend every year. Their suggestion then was to run the event every two years, and this has allowed us more time to develop different formats and generate new ideas. It has ensured a more relaxed show for everybody involved.

For every workshop we develop a specific motto – this year’s slogan was “The World Speaks Off-Grid”. In that regard, this year we created a speech bubble platform where everybody was able to give their opinion about their experiences or advice in the off-grid business. So I suppose the main headlines to emerge from the workshop were concerned with solar PV, wind and hydropower for rural electrification, and solar water supply in the industrial and leisure sectors.

What have been the key motivations behind this year’s Workshop?

For the off-grid market, there is really no event that fits well specifically to this sector. EU PVSEC or Intersolar, the major events, are really big, so for the off-grid niche suppliers they are often scattered in the halls at these events and can be difficult to locate and engage with. Since a lot of on-grid solar players disappeared from the market, Solar Promotion has tried to group all of the off-grid players together, but even then we find that guests at these events are always in a rush. Off-Grid is too complex a topic to inform visitors to the booth in just 15 minutes. This is why we decided in 2010 to start our own event where the guests are filtered experts, and they have two days in a relaxed atmosphere to exchange all their knowledge and opinions. This is, and has always been, our motivation.

How have technological advances over the past year played a part in moving the show forward?

We have seen that off-grid solar technology fits much more closely to off-grid water and wind power than it does to grid-connected solar technology. There is also a trend in the development of complete or ready-made kits for the independent power supply, supported by more developments in the LED technology, which fits well in terms of the complete kits. There was also a trend to identify for kits with larger solar generators (above the Pico PV range) as well as we can see additionally a development towards much larger hybrid systems and more sophisticated system monitoring, which is ever more important in the off-grid sector.

Based on feedback and responses from the Workshop, how important and complementary will improvements in storage and energy management software prove in the near future?

Storage has always been the core of most off-grid systems, water pumping aside. But since solar module prices have fallen a lot, storage is now the most expensive portion of the off-grid solution, and this is where we are seeing development. There is now a wider variety in storage development, particularly with different lithium technologies. Price-wise, the older technologies are still dependent upon the price of lead, but lithium is the newer option for off-grid, and we are seeing already a price drop in lithium technology.

And of course, monitoring technologies are becoming increasingly important, and there has been a definite improvement in these platforms.

What were the key takeaways from Session 1b on day one: off-grid and grid-connected energy existing side-by-side?

The major topics have been applications in the leisure market, including infrastructural topics such as street lighting and other illuminations outside, in the public space. Traffic was also a major topic, and for us the off-grid connect was very important. This is our only connection to the grid – it is grid parallel, it uses solar technology, and is more or less back up of the grid, supported by solar energy. It is most useful in regions with a weak grid, guaranteeing a continuous power supply, and you see it in cities in Africa and South America.

The issue of system sizing was addressed in a training session on the first day. Could you talk a little about that session, and explain why it is so important to size systems correctly?

This proved a highly interesting topic that attracted a number of different presentations. System sizing was one of the main presentation sessions, but it was also a popular topic at the speakers’ corner where guests were able to spontaneously give a presentation.

Once these off-grid systems have become complex and customized, they must fit individual needs on energy, which can be as individual as humans themselves. There is a huge need for accurate system sizing, so we saw the development of really good system sizing tools. These tools are mainly a software platform; you have a checklist, list all your loads, calculate the kWh in total, enter all of the necessary parameters and the software can calculate just how large or small you need to make the system.

This topic is always popular, and this year was no exception. Off-grid experts are always interested in improved software and easier handling of system performance.

Can you describe what business model innovations were discussed during Sessions 4b on day two?

We have seen that the typical rural electrification developments funded by donors have failed over the last few years because donations based on gifts are counter-productive. All you achieve is that people get addicted to these ‘gifts’, and donations become like drugs – you are just addicting the recipients to the next set of gifts. It takes away initiative from the local people.

There is now a new trend, which we call BOSS – Business Opportunities with Solar Systems, where donations can be used as initial finance. This way you support entrepreneurs who can then pay back in installments initial investments that they receive, either from donors or micro-finance institutes. There we developed a lot of ideas, but the target is also there to give an initial idea as data for local entrepreneurs to develop their own business models.

There have been big initiatives from GIZ, and even in the Alliance for Rural Electrification we have that as a main topic – the need to give local entrepreneurs opportunities. With all these refugees coming to Europe, it makes it the message of why we need to give local people opportunities by supporting entrepreneurs who are responsible for local development in rural areas ever more important. Without them, these regions see no business development.

Do your guests from Africa bring ideas with them to the workshop, and if so, are these ideas taken on board?

Yes. The conversation now is more of a dialogue and process of cooperation than it ever was. GIZ has long been working in Africa with great success, so the focus is more a new cooperative way to support the local initiatives, and focus more on getting local initiatives started, and the European guys can support this rather than going there like missionaries – this approach always fails.

It was great to see at the workshop how well these exchanges are working – between different cultures and practices etc. With all these subsidies in the on-grid market there was a big hype, but the subsidies had that same drug-like effect – visitors to the major shows would be completely addicted, and once people are addicted, the reaction is that there is no creativity any longer. That is missing in the on-grid sector because many companies became paralyzed once this happened.

So how has the off-grid sector been more proactive in this space?

It was never subsidized, simply. All the drivers have been there from the beginning; it forces us to do our best to work in an unsubsidized, natural market. Our enemy is the donation culture, which damages the natural order and the efforts of entrepreneurs. Slowly we see that the small investments from the past are now growing.

How are innovations in solar PV technology going to support the off-grid sector’s development?

There are specific developments that are only for the off-grid sector. One of the winners of the Off Grid Experts Awards was the Universal Electricity Dispenser, which is a specific off-grid invention.

We also see development in the plug and play solutions in the off-grid sector. We have some packages that are above Pico PV, so it is more or less the next step towards systems with a higher energy supply. In the past, these systems have been called solar home systems based on plug and play solutions, and are similar to Pico PV in that respect. We also see these monitoring systems that can work with different components from a whole range of suppliers, putting all system information into one IP software that shows the user a better overview of how their system is performing.

Now you have had time to reflect on the workshop, what developments are you most looking forward to seeing in the off-grid sector next year?

Beside Pico PV on one side and mini or micro grids on the other side a lot of developments will go into the productive use sector. One major topic will thus be BOSS, definitely, and also the monitoring sector will continue to evolve. We will also see a comeback of the classical solar home systems as plug and play products, with a bigger solar generator and more energy for the user.

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