Why the era of solar specialization is over: Part II

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Strategizing the future path for a global company like Q CELLS involves the deep consideration of a number of opportunities. Greater manufacturing capacity is but one of the strategic options available. As global demand for solar energy grows, so too does the need to provide affordable solar modules that continue to push the boundaries in efficiency, performance, and reliability.

Meeting both reputational and volume demand is a continuous balancing act; one that is made smoother thanks to Q CELLS’ renowned bankability and long-standing reputation as a driver of standards and innovation in the solar industry. Reaching beyond the relative comfort of one’s area of expertise is oftentimes a bold move, but the risk-reward balance can be tilted in a company’s favor so long as it conducts necessary due diligence.

As outlined in Part I, Q CELLS has already begun embarking on an ambitious R&D investment drive to accelerate its roadmap for photovoltaic technology. To augment and complement this determination in the solar innovation space, Q CELLS has developed a suite of additional products and services designed to overcome many of the energy access and consumption barriers that solar, alone, cannot.

Not all heroes wear CAPEX

Of all the accusations leveled at solar technology by fossil fuel lobbyists and climate change deniers over the years – from inaccurate claims that the production of solar panels is actually rather ‘dirty’, to the willfully obtuse opinion that the technology is useless unless it’s a clear, cloudless day in a warm country – the one hardest to shake off has been the characterization of solar power as something of middle-class luxury.

During the formative years of the solar industry, this argument carried some weight. Modules used to be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthier households. Commercial entities would often only consider installing an array on their business premises if they could guarantee a generous, long-term feed-in tariff (FIT) from the government. The same was also true at utility-scale, but it was these ground-mounted solar plants that catalyzed and accelerated cost reduction. Solar parks proved that if PV was able to deliver value at scale, boosting the grid across a range of terrains and regions, then what additional benefits could be squeezed out of the technology at a more distributed level? The answer, of course, is plenty.

There are reams of analyses available online tracking the steep cost decline of solar, and forecasting a near-term future in which the module is no longer the main cost drag on an installation. This is one of the industry’s most widely accepted trends. Yet it also poses the question: how can even the largest solar cell and module manufacturers hope to stay profitable and viable when the sale price of their core product continues to tumble?

Higher power output is one answer. Quality is another. Q CELLS modules are manufactured to exacting standards, securing not only all the necessary ISO certifications but a wealth of industry- and consumer-rated accolades for performance, reliability, and brand recognition. While Q CELLS will continue to develop high-performance modules with industry-leading quality, the company has for some time been acutely aware of the need to diversify to remain competitive in the fast-paced world of clean energy evolution.

It is in Q CELLS’ home market of Germany where the company has taken the greatest strides in offering total clean energy solutions for all types of end customer. This year, Q CELLS has launched its new power contracting and plant leasing solutions. These are intended to give companies access to low-cost solar power without the need to reach deep into their own pockets.

With power contracting, Q CELLS assumes the role of investor, owner and operator of the solar system it installs on a firm’s premises at zero upfront cost. The consumer then receives the electricity generated by the solar array, all within the framework of an electricity supply contract. Q CELLS then directly market any excess electricity that is not self-consumed, and if there are any residual electricity needs that cannot be met by the solar system, Q CELLS meets those needs with electricity drawn 100% from renewable sources.

The plant leasing model is similar in that Q CELLS once again installs the array at its own expense and remains the system owner. However, the customer – which now boasts a zero upfront-cost solar installation on its rooftop – then leases it from Q CELLS for a competitive rate. In short, the consumer becomes the operator of the system, and all electricity consumed is regarded as self-consumption. Q CELLS then directly markets any excess electricity.

The financial benefits of these models are self-evident. Small and medium-sized enterprises can enjoy the benefits of affordable renewable energy consumption with no large upfront costs, and can make additional savings on grid fees and levies. “Q CELLS assumes the complete role of planning, financing, constructing and – in the case of power contracting – operating the solar plant, as well as the supply of the residual electricity, all from one clean and 100% renewable source,” says Madlen Apel, Q CELLS’ Team Leader Energy Solutions.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have had to figure out ways to tighten their belts more than ever. By addressing energy consumption costs cleanly, while offering a second source of income for small businesses, Q CELLS’ power contracting and solar leasing services provide a tangible, low-barrier route for companies in Germany to play their part in the energy transition without having to shoulder the burden of a large financial commitment.

This service has been launched in Germany, and Q CELLS will seek to roll it out to other regions over the next few years. Q CELLS Japan, meanwhile, offers something very similar in the form of Solar Mate, which enables both residential and commercial consumers to enjoy the benefits of a rooftop Q CELLS solar system for zero upfront costs. Customers pay bills depending on their usage of solar electricity, and the ownership of the system transfers to the customer after 10 years of use. This PPA model has helped to further lower the financial barriers to solar power in Japan, which is a market where Q CELLS has long been the dominant residential player.

A changing world needs new solutions

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During the height of Europe’s pandemic-induced lockdown, energy consumption patterns flipped on their head. In the UK, statistics from the National Grid showed that home energy use was up 30% in the months of April, May, and June – when lockdown measures were at their severest. This was despite a 20% fall in morning and afternoon demand; essentially, the data showed that the typical morning peak shifted to later in the day. Further data from energy supply firm Bulb showed that there was also a 7% fall in energy demand in the evening, as households –probably quite bored after being stuck indoors all day – tended to ‘switch off’ sooner.

Of course, such patterns were – here’s that word you’ve been waiting for – ‘unprecedented’; barring a massive EU-wide second lockdown, we are unlikely to see those unique circumstances ever repeated again. But that historic period proved especially illuminating for the clean energy industry. It showed, firstly, how digital solutions can facilitate a whole new way of working: Zoom calls became the new buzzword, the roads and train carriages emptied, and broadband services were widened. Everything changed. So why not energy supply? If more and more people are willing, able, and permitted to work longer hours, or more days, from home, what does that mean for their own energy consumption patterns? What does that mean for the consumption patterns of offices and factories? What does it mean for the transportation network?

What it all means is opportunity: the chance to “build back better,” to decarbonize and green the system, to make it as flexible and adaptable as our digital lives have become. To have energy work around us, and our consumption patterns.

Solar+storage+EVs is a package that is quite literally tailor-made for this new reality. Q CELLS has long offered the solar portion, and for a few years now boasts a portfolio of scalable storage solutions available in Germany, the UK, other EU countries, Australia (supported with a recent $5 million investment in DER integration technology specialist SwitchDin), Japan, South Korea and the USA (where the company recently partnered with commercial storage software experts Geli). To close the loop, Germany has already welcomed Q.ENERGY, which offers residential customers the chance to choose two types of electricity supply tariffs, Smart or Basic, each drawn from 100% renewable energy sources. Also recently launched in Germany is the new Q CELLS Q.HOME EDRIVE-G1, which is an intelligent charging station for electric vehicles (EVs) that can work in situ with Q CELLS’ flexible energy tariff, the Q.ENERGY Smart.

Q.HOME EDRIVE G1

Photo: Q CELLS

The Q.HOME EDRIVE-G1 can charge all-electric cars registered in Europe with up to 22kW via the Type 2 charging connection, which is currently the

highest charging speed available for the home. The charging device is portable, which means EV owners can take it on the road with them, and a smart WLAN interface connects the device to the Smarthome network, thus allowing users to enjoy intelligent functions such as app access, load management, and various timer settings. Customers that boast their own solar system, or have a Q.ENERGY Smart tariff supply from Q CELLS, can charge their EV with ecological energy at times that are economically beneficial: the Q.ENERGY Smart tariff, for example, gives consumers access to electricity exchange prices 24 hours in advance, so they can pinpoint when the optimal charging time is. The EV is also a smart battery and can store and discharge solar energy for consumption in the home as and when the consumer requires.

Such flexible, cleanly powered solutions are going to assume a much more central role in the energy makes up of most EU nations over the coming years. They will be supported by governments eager to lower emissions and host cleaner, more dispatchable grids, and by companies such as Q CELLS, which is pouring its vast solar and engineering expertise into these exciting new avenues of energy production, consumption, and storage.

And in the end… it will all be worth it

Taking an active role in shaping the energy solutions available to homes and businesses has always been one of Q CELLS’ key goals. The global energy transition currently underway will only arrive at its intended destination once a critical mass of the populace adopts – without pushback or hesitance – the behaviors required to usher in this new system. Perhaps the most visible, visceral change we see before our eyes are the exponential adoption of EVs. The IEA’s most recent outlook anticipates that EV sales will account for 3% of all passenger car sales this year: that may sound small, but given that the global car stock is only 1% EVs, it represents a huge jump in adoption at a time when passenger car sales are expected to plummet overall by 15% in 2020.

‘Range anxiety’ remains a serious challenge, however. Private equity firm and EV charging consultant Satif Group calculates that globally, a $45 billion investment is required in EV charging infrastructure over the next four years if EVs are to go mainstream. Without context, that looks like a rather hefty figure. But let’s not lose sight of how rapidly change comes about: change arrives once it starts to make sense, and money, to people. Economic researchers at the University of Massachusetts have estimated that for every $1 million spent on renewables, 7.5 full-time jobs are created. For fossil fuels, every $1 million spent creates only 2.7 full-time jobs. So the middle of a pandemic – and, of course, the ensuing global recession – really is the right time to spend the capital required to deliver fully integrated, renewables-powered, energy and transportation solutions.

The journey that photovoltaics started all those years ago – planting the kernel of truth that energy was all around us, and not just unlocked through the burning of long-buried carbon – is really only just beginning. Solar panels on rooftops used to be a rare sight; now any new housing development looks strange without them. Home battery systems used to be unwieldy, unsightly, and massively expensive: now they discreetly slot into the home, humming away efficiently and affordably. Electric vehicles used to evoke images of underpowered, clunky golf or milk carts: now all of the world’s leading automakers are putting their best designers and engineers to the task of delivering sleek high-performance models that best their previous fossil-fueled flagship cars.

There remains a long road ahead of us. Challenges abound in greening the lifecycle of solar panels, of securing fair and safe working conditions for cobalt miners in Africa, of lowering the costs of all components to ensure that even the world’s poorest can benefit from the green revolution, and of doing all this while still pushing the technological boundaries of what is achievable. Q CELLS knows only too well the pressures inherent in all these processes. It knows, too, the abundant opportunities that reside within them – and Q CELLS is also aware of what is at stake if the world doesn’t take disruptive and sustained action, right now.

 

 

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