When Huawei started as a small company in Shenzhen, China, in 1987, its focus was squarely on the information and communication technology (ICT) sector and B2B telecommunications in particular. It aspired to challenge the dominance of foreign telecommunications vendors in China, as China was rapidly expanding its fixed and mobile telecommunications networks. After meeting with success at home, it began to expand overseas and emerged as a leading telecommunications vendor to phone companies seeking to build powerful fixed-line and mobile voice and data networks.
Today Huawei does business in 170 countries with annual revenues of over $92.5 billion. One third of the world’s population is served by the manufacturer’s ICT technology and Huawei employs 180,000 employees around the world, with half of this staff being involved in research and development. R&D centers are located not only in China, but also in the U.S., France, Germany, Sweden, the U.K., India, Japan, and Russia. In 2017 the company invested $12.1 billion (€10.4 billion) in R&D, representing almost 20% of its annual revenues. According to the “2017 Industrial Investment Scoreboard” published in December 2017 by the European Commission, Huawei ranked number six among companies investing the most money in innovation. And it ranked first among companies filing patents at the European Patent Office in 2017. Huawei’s 74,307 worldwide patent applications granted to date represent more than any other company in the field of digital communications.
Up until fairly recently, Huawei’s ICT portfolio was largely directed at mobile operators or other enterprises around the world. However, in 2012 the company moved aggressively into the end-user market by launching an Android-based smartphone internationally, the first time a Chinese ICT manufacturer had done so. Just four years later, the company was already ranked number three among smartphone producers, selling 139 million smartphones in 2016, more than any other manufacturer except for Samsung and Apple. It has recently incorporated artificial intelligence (AI) into its mobile devices with one AI application involving facial recognition technology to improve photos. Another innovation involves ultra-fast charging utilizing Huawei’s Magic technology.
This push into consumer electronics is quickly making Huawei a household brand across the world. On the solar PV side, this global brand recognition can be leveraged to introduce cutting-edge PV applications to the residential sector. Since consumers are now familiar with Huawei’s innovation in delivering a stateof-the-art ICT experience, they are open to new applications on the energy front, be it green energy or convenient ways to control a smart home. Since these energy and smart home applications are also taking advantage of a sophisticated enduser device, namely the smartphone, the entire consumer experience is brought together in one place and on one screen.
“From pocket to socket” is therefore a unifying experience, which taps into various areas of Huawei’s ICT, green energy, and battery storage expertise. It also demonstrates what Huawei calls “New ICT,” meaning the central importance of ICT technology in driving business in a wide range of markets. Previously, ICT was mainly tasked with supporting enterprises, be they actors in the energy field or in other markets. But with the rise of cloud computing, AI, and other technologies, ICT is now becoming a central asset in driving innovation in almost every sector.
A case in point is Huawei’s smart I-V curve analysis in the PV sector. This is essentially AI applied to PV. Using cloud computing, Huawei continuously harvests string level performance data of a PV power plant and compares the I-V curve of each string to normal and abnormal patterns. This is done automatically by sophisticated algorithms, and if the actual I-V curve matches an abnormal pattern, the smart I-V curve analysis can even deliver a diagnosis of the likely fault involved. This could be anything from a simple shading issue to a more serious fault like hot spots or cracked glass in the solar panels.
The application of new ICT technology like Huawei’s smart I-V curve analysis is making the PV operations & maintenance (O&M) business not only much more sophisticated, but more cost efficient over the life of the power plant. This intelligence is also being applied to the manufacturer’s residential solution, where even individual modules can be monitored to ensure optimal output of the rooftop PV system. A combination of optimizers at the module level and ICT technology embedded in gateways and other devices in the home provide the needed granularity and control to achieve a truly cutting-edge solution.
But optimized output and ease of use for the consumer is only part of the story. Where Huawei’s ICT track record also provides a strategic advantage in the PV industry is on the long-term reliability front. What good is a fancy smartphone or a PV inverter if it cannot be counted on all the time and in a wide range of environments? The better comparison is actually not with a smartphone, which usually has a lifetime of just a few years, but with Huawei’s original product, the telecommunications network. Such networks will involve outdoor components, which need to perform according to the 99.999% availability standard common to the telecommunications industry, and often in harsh environments involving extreme temperatures and other challenging conditions. This has been the operating environment for Huawei’s ICT equipment for over 30 years and the manufacturer has already applied many of the lessons learned to PV.
This includes natural cooling of Huawei’s inverters, so fan-less cooling to remove this common failure point. It includes removing the display screen on the inverter, since this screen could over time prove to be a weak link in the housing of the inverter. In combination these advantages create an exceptionally low failure rate of under 0.5% for Huawei’s installed base of PV inverters on an annual basis. As Matthias Wagner, Director Business Development of Huawei Technologies Deutschland GmbH, pointed out at the MCE exhibition in Milan, Italy, this March, one lesson learned from the company’s telecoms track record is that “the better the product is, the fewer problems we have afterwards with the service.” Just like the smart I-V curve analysis, an exceptionally low failure rate translates into reduced O&M costs, and thus better return on investment over the life of the PV plant.
Wagner also mentions Huawei’s telecoms background in explaining the very high service level offered by Huawei to its customers. A rock solid service-level agreement (SLA) is standard in the telecoms business, since any network outage is a critical event for telecoms operators serving a multitude of end-users around the clock. This approach has been applied to the company’s PV customers, so that now, according to Wagner, “where our customers are, we have a service center.”
Finally, the speed of this rollout, be it on the “socket side” (Huawei’s PV solutions) or the “pocket side” (Huawei’s smartphones), has been phenomenal. Just three years after it entered the PV inverter market in 2013, Huawei earned the top spot among global inverter suppliers with over 20 GW shipped in 2016. In 2017, Huawei passed the 30 GW milestone, and there will probably be 40 GW in 2018, which would account for about 30% of the global inverter market. Over on the pocket side, it reached the top three category in just four years and is now considered one of the frontrunners in deploying next-generation 5G technology in mobile networks. We can expect 5G innovation to also benefit PV innovation at Huawei, be it in massive gigawatt solar farms or in households keen to enjoy homegrown clean energy.