Articles produced in partnership with Huawei for the pv magazine special publication.
Huawei goes home
Residential solar: Since entering the solar inverter space in 2011, China’s Huawei has enjoyed rapid market share gains in all utility-scale and commercial markets in which it has competed. Now, as the many mature solar regions begin ramping up residential, Huawei is poised to introduce new technology solutions for this expanding market.
The overarching theme from 2015’s COP21 UN Summit in Paris was finding viable ways to limit CO2 emissions to prevent the earth’s temperature increasing past critical mass levels by 2050. Heads of state shook hands, signed documents and posed for pictures before the world’s media, emerging triumphant in their belief that their words, promises and pledges could prove pivotal in this fight.
Strong, stable leadership has a huge role to play in keeping climate change at bay. But top-down actions always run the risk of alienating masses of people, and effecting behavior change en masse is not only fraught with contradictions, but is nigh-on impossible to achieve in a functioning democracy.
The battle against rising CO2 emissions has long been, and remains, economic. During the recession, western nations actually saw their emissions flatline or fall in line with tumbling consumption, while the great worry among environmentalists is that, as nations with huge populations become more developed, their emissions are going to push past the point of no return.
So the question of how best to tackle climate change is not one of ideology, but simple economics: if clean power sources can become cheaper, then the whole world benefits. And this is what has happened with solar in recent years. At the utility scale at least, solar PV plants have reached grid parity, and in some cases are even cheaper than gas or coal. Maturing solar markets are now bringing their innate ability to drive down costs to bear on the residential space. Where previously home solar was supported by necessary subsidies in order to prove attractive to cash-conscious homeowners, now costs are so low in many leading markets that typical rooftop solar systems make economic sense on their own.
In the U.S., Japan, Australia and most parts of Europe, residential solar installations are poised to be the chief drivers for PV growth over the next few years, and it is this opportunity that has piqued the interest of Huawei. The Chinese firm has already proven a disruptive presence in large scale solar markets, and analysts are confident that their entrance into the residential space will prove telling in a number of ways – not least in driving costs down further and, in turn, increasing uptake of solar PV.
The string inverter portfolio offered by Huawei is evolving. At the recent PV Expo in Tokyo the company showcased its new 33 kW and 40 kW inverters that boast four maximum power point trackers (MPPT), two DC switches and eight strings each. These iterations have been designed for the commercial rooftop market and weigh 55kg each, but the firm also unveiled its range of smaller inverters ranging in size from 4.12 kW and 4.95 kW, weighing 10kg and easily groupable for installation on 50kW small commercial rooftop and free field installations.
With such flexibility in size and scope, talk has obviously turned to Huawei’s residential ambitions. “We have enjoyed a lot of success in the commercial rooftop markets of Europe, Japan, the U.S., China and the APAC region,” a Huawei spokesperson told pv magazine. “So as requested by our customers, and driven by the development strategy of Huawei itself, we will expand our product portfolio to residential markets. This will be an important year for us to have a global launch of residential products in Europe, Australia, China and the U.S.”
The new residential inverter from Huawei is a rather sleek, smooth-edged appliance that has evidently been designed with the style-conscious homeowner in mind. It is lightweight, so can be easily installed, and comes battery-ready for those homeowners who wish to add storage capacity. As with all Huawei inverters, it will also be compatible with the FusionSolar APP, meaning homeowners can quickly and simply monitor their solar energy production.
“This new inverter has already won a Red Dot design award, having impressed the judges with its smart home design,” said the Huawei spokesperson, who remarked of the importance of developing different applications and products for different scenarios and solutions. “How to manage solar PV, storage and self-consumption in the home is a different challenge for us. This is why the new inverter is being presented as part of our new smart home energy management center.
“Secondly, it is challenging to create a partner sales network and pull-push power in the residential market. But the Huawei brand is becoming more and more well-known thanks to our smartphones.” With this in mind, Huawei is aiming to become a leader in the residential solar PV industry in a similar way that companies such as Tesla have used their excellence in other fields to create hype and demand for their home energy solutions, namely the Powerwall battery.
However, Huawei is acutely aware that style requires substance. “Our brand pull power will be really helpful for entering into residential markets,” said the spokesperson. “But quick and reliable service is a must in this market. We believe that it is premier quality and efficient services that ultimately win the trust of our clients, which is why we have a dedicated service channel in our portal system to support our customers intelligently and efficiently.”
A numbers game
The growth in the uptake of module level power electronics (MLPE) in recent years has been almost exclusively rooted in rooftop solar sectors. The slight efficiency gains proffered by the use of DC optimizers and microinverters make sense at this smaller scale, the additional 2-3% yield a viable trade-off against the costs associated with installing such technology. At utility-scale, the cost benefits are not quite there yet, however. Hence, with further opportunities for homeowners and businesses to increase their solar energy yield, one can expect growth in this sector to continue rising sharply – and again, Huawei is awake to the possibilities at hand.
“We are making investigations into the [MLPE] markets and assessing the best options,” Huawei’s spokesperson confirmed to pv magazine. “The new NEC2017 safety code in the U.S. mandates rapid shutdown of modules on rooftops, and this is making the argument for MLPE more compelling than ever. In other markets, we see similar trends of safety requirements and demand of module-level monitoring. The challenge for Huawei is how to create value for our customers with balanced cost and long-term reliability. But we have confidence in our unique ability to overcome those challenges.”
It is expected that Huawei will introduce to the U.S. market DC power optimizers in the second half of this year, with further markets added later in 2017.
A key tenet of this growth will be identifying viable partnership networks that can ably support Huawei’s expansion strategy and service standards. Residential solar markets tend to be less easy to regulate than utility-scale markets, which are often dominated by smaller clusters of suppliers and EPCs.
“As market opportunities in distributed generation emerge, along with the launch of our residential products, Huawei will continue to explore more partnerships and rapidly expand the number of trusted partners to reach more cities and towns and to be closer to our customers to offer them the best products and services,” concluded the Huawei spokesperson.
A string of success
String inverters at scale: The global solar industry has seen in the past few years how string inverters are increasingly displacing central inverters in multi-MW PV power plants. pv magazine examines the benefits of this shift, and what the future may hold.
In 2011 the first multi-MW PV power plants equipped with string inverters were commissioned in Germany, proving that all grid-code requirements for large scale solar systems could be met with a distributed inverter topology. and not only by central inverters.
String inverter topology for MW-systems initially used for “special” layouts
Ever since, three-phase string inverters have seen a growing adoption rate in large scale PV power systems. Initially the key driver for the increased adoption of string inverters in utility scale systems was the fact that switching to string inverters gave the EPCs a much higher degree of freedom in the plant layout. In incidents where the plot of land was not simply flat, where (partial) shading was an issue, where modules with different power ratings had to be integrated in one PV system or simply where the access roads would not support the heavy load trailer trucks required for bringing the central inverters onsite, the switch to string inverters was decisive to make the PV project viable at all. In such incidents the higher investment costs that the use of string inverters still meant 2-3 years ago could then be justified.
In the meantime, the price differential on a €/kWp basis between central inverters with a power rating in the MW-range and three-phase string inverters with a power rating in the 30 – 60 kW-range has diminished strongly.
As a consequence, more and more developers and system engineers of solar power plants are deciding in favor of the decentralized inverter layout even in the absence of specific incidents that would necessitate the use of string inverters for an efficient layout of a multi-MW solar power plant.
Taking only the investment and constructing costs into account, equipping a 20 MW power plant with string inverters is no longer necessarily more expensive than with central inverters. For the string inverter layout the added cost for the transformer cabin and AC-combiner boxes have to be taken into account. On the other hand, no DC string monitors are required for the string inverter layout and significant savings can be realized at the DC-cabling level.
Yet the budgeted costs laid down in spreadsheets don’t necessarily reflect real life challenges involved in the construction of PV power plants. Stefan Koeberlein, senior manager at German EPC firm sun.factory GmbH highlights: “We usually have very tight schedules for the construction of the PV power plants. Often enough regulatory frameworks impose deadlines that under all circumstances have to be met. Since the installation of a central inverter requires renting expensive equipment and coordinating specialists, this can cause quite a headache and extra costs, if the weather conditions force the rescheduling of the originally planned installation date. Going instead with string inverters provides us with the option to react much more flexibly at the construction site to any external factors that force adjustments to the original time schedule.”
String inverters grant flexible service concepts and lower maintenance costs
Today, the most frequently cited reason why operators and owners of PV power plants opt for a string inverter configuration instead of a central inverter solution is the flexibility in the service concept.
With a central inverter architecture the operator is bound to this specific manufacturer for service and spare parts for the entire lifespan of the PV power plant. Furthermore, certain parameters of a central inverter can only be accessed and modified by authorized service technicians. If a problem with a central inverter cannot be solved remotely a qualified service technician of the inverter manufacturer has to travel to the site to perform the repair. In case the cause of the inverter problem could not be diagnosed remotely, two trips to the power plant are required: the first to identify the cause of the malfunction and the second for the actual repair. Depending on the location of the power plant and the availability of the given spare part, significant additional costs can arise from expediting the required replacement part to the site.
The whole time before the repair of the central inverter can ultimately be performed, the thousands of modules attached to the central inverter are affected by its underperformance, thus leading to substantial energy yield losses.
In contrast, the service concept for string inverter configurations has always been that local electricians simply replace the faulty inverter in the field and send the defective device back to the service center of the manufacturer where the fault analysis (and possibly the repair) is being performed. The local electricians only have to be qualified in (dis-)mounting and (dis-)connecting a string inverter, which for modern string inverter designs is fairly simple. This allows for much lower servicing costs and much faster reaction times. Even if the servicing time for the central inverter and the string inverter were the same, the effective loss in power generation would be 20 to 50 times lower per inverter failure.
With failure rates of Huawei’s string inverters below 0.5% per year statistically there will be no more than one inverter service incident per year per 10 MW PV power plant unit each equipped with 200 string inverters. The larger the size the solar power plant gets, the more remote typically their location, clearly favoring the decentralized inverter concept in particular for the largest solar power plants. Indeed, the largest PV power plant to date is a 1 GW system in China equipped with Huawei string inverters.
Even more concerning than the servicing costs for central inverters is the complete dependence on the supplier. What happens if a manufacturer discontinues its inverter activities within the next ten or 20 years? If today a power plant operator requires any kind of support for a Satcon central inverter, for instance, he has to be prepared to pay exorbitant service fees, since Satcon went out of business a couple of years ago.
In contrast, if a solar power plant is equipped with 400VoltAC string inverters today and the original supplier is no longer active ten years from now, there will always be a choice of 400VoltAC string inverters from alternative suppliers that can be used at that time to replace any faulty devices of the original supplier.
And consider an alternative service scenario: Suppose for whatever reason ten years from now multiple solar modules have to be exchanged at the power plant. It is obvious that today’s power ratings of the modules will no longer be available. With a central inverter architecture there is no chance to take advantage of the higher power ratings of the modules available by then. With more than 2,000 modules per maximum power point tracker (MPPT),
Huawei has made great progress in the cost optimization of string inverters, resulting in negligible price differences
Huawei provides a unique advantage – smart fault detection
All of the above cited arguments that have already led to string inverters capturing an ever growing share of the utility-scale solar system market can be summarized with the terms of flexibility and vendor independence. For an asset that has to operate for 20 years or more in order to earn the intended investment yield, flexibility and vendor independence are good arguments by themselves to opt for this architecture. Yet Huawei is now introducing an argument that is unique to its architecture and cannot be replicated in a central inverter power plant layout.
All Huawei string inverters with power ratings above 36 kW launched since last summer are capable of performing a smart fault detection and diagnosis. How does that compare to the current state of the art?
As of today, the monitoring of a solar power plant is limited to monitoring the output power and comparing it to the expected power yield based on the irradiation level measured in parallel. In a central inverter topology, even when using smart DC combiner boxes the inherent measurement uncertainty of around 2% -3% limits the ability to detect all relevant faults in a solar installation as long as they only affect single strings or modules.
With a conventional string inverter topology, underperforming strings can be identified yet without any further insight into the cause of the underperformance.
Compared to the central inverter architecture at least one has the advantage of being able to better localize the affected areas within the solar park.
If the observed energy yield loss is severe enough to trigger a further analysis, in both scenarios it is required that a service team is dispatched to the site of the power plant and that it performs time intensive and costly measurements on-site, be it I-V curve measurements, electroluminescence measurements or thermal imaging. Often enough the detailed analysis of the field measurements is then performed back in the office, requiring a second service incident on-site to perform the actual repair. Consequently, the time that elapses between detecting an underperformance in the field and its repair can easily exceed one week.
Given the high costs associated with each diagnostic tests performed on-site, operators have to set significant thresholds before an on-site visit of a service technician can be justified. Therefore, a key economic requirement in day-to-day solar power plant operation is limiting false alarms.
All these issues can be solved with the use of Huawei’s FusionSolar Smart PV Management System. From the remote monitoring center an operator can initiate with a simple click the I-V curve scan of individual strings. Intelligent diagnosis algorithms can not only identify faulty strings but can also distinguish between more than 15 different causes for the underperformance listed in the table below. In order to perform the fault diagnosis, Huawei’s software identifies typical I-V curve signatures associated with the specific faults.
|Open circuit of string|
|Current mismatch in string|
|Glass breakage of panel|
|Hidden cracks in panel|
|Panel cover up|
|Cell damage in panel|
|Diode short circuit|
|Bracing breakage in panel|
|Low string voltage|
|Risk of PID|
|String with minor current mismatch|
|String with high resistance|
|Low string short circuit current|
|High decay speed of string|
|Incorrect string configuration|
Table 1: list of different fault causes Huawei’s FusionSolar can identify
From an operator’s and an owner’s perspective, such a remote fault analysis bears a number of important advantages:
- No service technician has to be dispatched to perform the error localization and error identification on-site.
- The fault diagnosis can be performed any time, independent of weather conditions.
- The actual measurement is performed within a few seconds so that the time between error identification and repair can be drastically shortened.
- No modules have to be disconnected for the failure diagnosis, and so no energy production has to be sacrificed in order to perform the failure diagnosis.
- The thresholds in the monitoring system that trigger an error analysis can be set much tighter, as no additional costs are associated with the failure diagnosis. Thus, underperformance can be identified at a much earlier stage, further improving the overall energy yield of the solar power plant.
This feature is a clear differentiator and has the potential to significantly increase the adoption rate of Huawei string inverters in utility-scale solar parks around the world. Looking at today’s success of Huawei in a stagnating European solar market, increasing its shipments from 400 MW in 2014 to some 800 MW in 2015 and more than 1.5 GW in 2016, the intelligent failure diagnostic feature is bound to spur further growth in the next few years.
So far one can distinguish quite different adoption rates of string inverters in the utility scale market segment globally. It is estimated that in 2016 roughly 50% of the newly installed PV power plants in China were equipped with string inverters. In Europe, anywhere from 15% to 25% of the MW-scale PV installations last year used string inverters while in the U.S. string inverters still made up less than 10% of the utility scale market.
Huawei’s introduction of the intelligent failure diagnostic feature at the inverter level will significantly impact what in future will be expected from operations and maintenance (O&M) of solar parks. On the back of Huawei’s success, string inverter-equipped large-scale solar parks could become as common around the world as the already are today in China.
FusionSolar: a top runner in China’s energy evolution
The Top Runner Project: Huawei’s string smart string inverters and FusionSolar solution is proving its worth in China’s Top runner Project, which is slowly but surely ushering in a new, cleaner energy future for the country.
Datong, in Shanxi, China, is an important coal-producing region. Unfortunately, the water and soil in some areas of the city has been irreparably damaged due to coal mining, and the land is no longer suitable for farming. However, what this land does have is huge potential for producing solar energy, with an annual solar irradiance of 5,432.8 million joules per square meter. Within China, this is second only to the Tibetan Plateau, making Datong an excellent location for the construction of PV plants.
In April 2015, the Shanxi government sent an official report to China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), proposing the construction of PV power generation bases at mine subsidence areas in Datong. In June that year, following the proposal’s approval by NEA, the first PV Top Runner base of China was settled in Datong. A year later, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced that, starting from June 30, 2016, the feed-in tariff (FIT) would be lowered. The plant shareholders of the Top Runner project all accelerated the project progress and hoped to complete before the deadline. On June 29, 2016, the first phase was finished on time, with 1 GW capacity being completed, installed, and then connected to the power grid to begin production. The incredible construction speed demonstrated by the Top Runner project shows its leading place within the future of solar energy.
Intelligent and cost efficient power generation were critical factors for the investors that won the bidding in the first phase of the Top Runner project because they directly correlate to the return on investment (ROI) for the shareholders. In the contest of cutting-edge technologies and products in the PV industry, the enterprise that focuses on the technologies that will improve energy efficiency and has strong brand appeal is certain to be the winner.
Seven enterprises including CHD, CGN, United New Energy, and CTG New Energy each won the bid to develop a 100 MW PV plant of the Top Runner project. Another five enterprises including Jinkopower each won the bid to develop a 50 MW PV plant. Following the innovate application of the Huawei FusionSolar Smart PV solution at mine subsidence areas, ten mainstream developers chose to team up with Huawei. These developers made use of Huawei’s smart string inverters and FusionSolar solution, and all were successful in creating grid connections without any faults. In total, Huawei has supplied 500 MW inverters to the Top Runner base in Datong, accounting for 50% of the Frontrunner project’s total capacity.
Smart string inverter
Only PV modules and products with an efficiency level that is at or above the industry benchmark can be shortlisted for use at the Datong Top Runner base. An inverter must have a conversion efficiency of more than 99%, a Chinese efficiency of not less than 98%, and the capability of zero voltage rides through (ZVRT). Considering the challenging mountainous terrain and the difficulties with O&M in mine subsidence areas, plant investors favor string inverters and intelligent O&M systems.
Wang Yanguo, a senior engineer of Shanxi Electric Power Engineering Co., Ltd., conducted a site survey on the geological environment of the mine subsidence areas in Datong. He concluded that the challenging terrain can cause inconsistencies with PV module orientation, decreasing energy yields. Other factors such as continuous and uneven subsidence and too much ash can also increase the chance of a PV module mismatch. Fan Xiushan, general manager of the North China Region of CTG New Energy, a company that has cooperated with Huawei several times, said: “String inverters succeed in reducing the energy yield loss caused by the shade that PV modules can be under when deployed on mountainous terrain, compared with central inverters under the same conditions. This ensures an improvement of more than 81% of plant PR and 4.62% of energy yields.”
Of the 10 developers that use smart string inverters, CGN and United PV use only Huawei smart string inverters; 95% of the inverters used by CTG New Energy are Huawei smart string inverters, and 80% of the inverters used by Jinkopower are Huawei smart string inverters.
Meng Yaqi, vice general manager of the Inner Mongolia region of CMN, praises the terrain-based PV array deployment supported by the string inverter solution. String inverters are ideal for outdoor use because the IP65 rating and free cooling design can completely protect string inverters from ash. This eliminates the need for some maintenance tasks such as cleaning up dust.
Coincidentally, CHEC has also chosen to use string inverters, which improve the efficiency using precise maximum power point tracking (MPPT) technology and increase energy yields using a solar tracker. Li Yanhong, chief design engineer of CHEC, said: “Dust accumulation greatly reduces energy yields. Due to the location within an area previously used for coal mining, the time taken to clean a PV plant is twice that of a normal PV plant. Thanks to Huawei’s smart PV O&M platform, which works in unattended mode and requires only a few maintenance personnel, the O&M cost is reduced while the efficiency is greatly increased. This leads to ‘lower investment, higher return’, making this an economic project.”
To withstand tough terrains and harsh demands, Top Runner project shareholders and EPC units spare no effort to ensure that they have the best device models. This is particularly true when selecting PV modules, inverters, combiner boxes and box-type transformers.
Furthermore, many shareholders have higher requirements regarding intelligent O&M than they
do regarding energy yield increase. A convenient and efficient O&M system can function as the “brain” of a PV plant. Many shareholders are now collaborating with Huawei to construct intelligent O&M networks across regions, countries, and even the world.
Jinkopower was one of the developers involved in the first phase of the Top Runner project. Jinkopower undertook a 50 MW project in Dongtiaojian, Dianwan, Zuoyun. Gong Chuanhe, president of Jinkopower Design Institute, tells us that a medium-sized (for example, 50 MW) PV plant requires a far more complicated management unit than a small-sized PV plant. The O&M system must be intelligent, efficient, and reliable, and support systematic and centralized management. When selecting such an O&M system, shareholders will consider the pros and cons for devices, intelligent inspection, and power generation efficiency.
CGN has also chosen Huawei FusionSolar Smart PV Solution for its 100 MW PV project in Xingwang, Datong, Shanxi. A technical engineer from CGN said: “The 100 MW PV plant covers an area twice as large as that of a normal PV plant, which makes manual inspection an impossibility. The FusionSolar Smart PV solution can precisely monitor the running status of each PV string and accurately locate any faults, greatly reducing the time required for checks. Therefore, we decide to team up with Huawei to set up a remote centralized control platform. We will build provincial monitoring systems to implement hierarchical control and reduce site O&M personnel.”
CMN is also optimistic about the future of the smart PV strategy. The head of the Frontrunner project team of CMN announced that “when designing the intelligent O&M, ideology for PV plants, high reliability, high intelligence, high automation, high efficiency, simple system, easy maintenance, and internet-based design are all critical. The Huawei FusionSolar Smart PV solution meets all of our requirements.” CMN has been involved with co-constructing an intelligent global PV plant O&M center together with Huawei. This center will manage 46 PV plants that are either owned by CMN or that CMN has agreements with. CMN has successfully introduced Huawei FusionSolar Smart PV Solution into the first Top Runner base in Datong. Huawei intelligent O&M cloud center makes “centralized resources, managed by few people” a possibility.
Wireless communication technology
An intelligent PV plant requires information communication technology that can keep pace with the fast-developing world around it. The mine subsidence areas sink 3–5 cm every 20 years, which could break the RS485 communications cables that are buried underground. Changing a broken cable in mountainous terrain is difficult, as people have to dig a ditch and then route a new cable.
Mainstream developers such as CHEC, CGN, Jinkopower, and CMN share the same view as Wang Yanguo, the engineer at Shanxi Electric Power Engineering Co., Ltd., who said: “In a mountain-mounted PV project, cable routing is never what you planned. However, Huawei’s industrial-level power line communication (PLC) can replace RS485 cables. This reduces the costs involved in purchasing and routing RS485 cables, reduces information loss caused by unstable RS485 signals, and reduces the risk to cables that will inevitably break when the ground sinks.”
A construction company has also praised PLC, saying: “The application of PLC and wireless technologies not only reduces communications cables and engineering expenses, but also makes construction quicker and easier.”
Efficient and reliable service team
Huawei is a fully customer-centric company, and wanted to ensure that the Top Runner project was successfully connected to the power grid before June 30, 2016. To achieve this, Huawei invested in service personnel and assigned an elite service team to provide site support. From the beginning to the end of the Top Runner project, Huawei recruited more than 30 people to deal with solution delivery, ensuring that the Top Runner project was fully supported.
During the delivery process, Huawei overcame the challenging site environment and proactively helped customers with site problems. This approach meant that the Top Runner project was successfully connected to the power grid one week in advance.
To help customers quickly locate faults, the Huawei service management team maintained contact with, and trained the O&M personnel, of all customers after grid connection and accelerated the monitoring system commissioning. Customers were very satisfied with the quick fault location for devices and PV modules during troubleshooting. To minimize the risk during device running, Huawei sets up a dedicated spare part and technical support team in Datong for the Top Runner project, ensuring future worry-free operation.
Huawei’s efficient and reliable service team has been acknowledged and applauded by all the shareholders and EPC companies of the Top Runner project. All services provided by Huawei have received high praise from CGN, CTG New Energy, CMN, and other customers on the satisfaction survey. One customer said: “Huawei is highly skilled, provides professional services, and resolves issues in a timely manner.”
Smart PV industry chain
Within the PV Top Runner project, Huawei FusionSolar Smart PV Solution won acclaim from customers for technological advancement, solution rationality, and low electricity prices. This was made possible thanks to the core benefits of efficient power generation, intelligent O&M, and security and reliability.
In the future, Huawei will continue to collaborate with numerous EPC companies, device manufacturers, institutes and shareholders to co-construct an open, collaborative, and progressive smart PV industry chain platform. This will cement the leading place of the Top Runner project and promote the mature development of the PV industry chain.
“We look at the whole lifetime costs”
UK market: Anesco has gone through a period of very rapid growth in recent years. Its solar business spans the commercial and utility scale market segments. Anesco CEO Kevin Mouatt spoke to pv magazine about the importance of partnering with component suppliers, and how it will allow the company to make the next step in the evolving U.K. PV marketplace.
pv magazine: Anesco and Huawei have been close partners in the U.K. market. How would you describe the relationship?
Kevin Mouatt: At Anesco, we look for like minded companies to partner with. I think historically if you look at the U.K.’s relationship with supply chain, its only been seen as a supply chain with a master/servant basis. Contracts in the U.K. are very adversarial and what we’re building with Huawei is for the long term.
What we’re looking for from Huawei is this flexibility that we’re getting now. It’s all about the working relationship, how we can carry on developing our product, rather that sitting down saying ‘can you take two pence off this, can you take three pence off this.’ It’s better for me that I’ve got a partner I can use for future works, rather than just today.
I think that’s a good message for the industry in many parts of the world.
I will keep going back to Huawei, because its something I believe in. Even in the U.K. If you’re really partners with someone you shouldn’t need to have a contract in place.
What we’re looking for is we want the simplest arrangement, somebody who’s going to be there when it’s raining as well as in the sunshine. What you normally find is people want to work with you when the sun shines, but the minute the rain comes down, they hide. That is what’s really attracted us to Huawei.
Well, talking of rain, after a period in which the utility scale market in the U.K. has been a very good one, Anesco must now look to a post-Renewable Obligation solar market. How are you facing that challenge?
We’ve had to overcome some fairly challenging times in terms of the product, of what we have to do with each individual component. But not once has Huawei turned around and said “no” to one of our requests. They’ve worked with us and they understood what we want to get out of the design of the product and they’ve made changes to that product to suit where we want to go with our business.
Can you give me an example of that?
Just as an example, the U.K. has built [PV arrays] so far with 1000V inverters. 1000V for us is not good enough [going forward], which provides a bit of an insight into some of the changes we’re going to be making.
Huawei’s string inverter for utility scale has made a significant impact on the power plant market in many parts of the world, how did it change the way Anesco does business.
We chose string inverters, not micro or central inverters, the reason for that is it gives better predictability for our investors. When we’ve gone out to build we’ve taken into account what our investors look for, what they see as bankable. The string inverter suits our needs and our investors better.
In what ways – monitoring, speed of installation, service repair? What are the key points?
It allows us to monitor by string rather than the whole park. That allows me then to look at optimizing the performance of panels. In terms of predictability I don’t lose the park if there was to be an issue. So writing out contracts and guaranteeing performance, its better to have the string than the central inverter. The other side of that is the type of product that we’re going forward with, we needed someone that could be more flexible with the way the inverter was to work, and we found that with Huawei.
Cost is always an important lever, what about the cost structure of the way you develop projects, what role has Huawei played there?
This is where we go back to partnering, when we look at cost within Anesco we don’t look at the cost today or tomorrow, I could buy cheaper inverters currently than I get from Huawei, but what we look at is the whole-lifetime cost. When I look at the cost of a product, it’s the whole-of-life that I look towards. When I see some of the products and the guarantees that I can get, I’ve had more downtime with other inverters than I’ve had with Huawei.
Anesco does have some O&M contracts, sometimes for parks that Anesco hasn’t developed itself. How do you go about developing an O&M regime?
Our maintenance is proactive, we’d rather go out and maintain it than have it break down. So we have a tight rule on that. What we can say from the 21,000 assets that we manage, which is just shy of 700 MW, of the string inverters that we look after, we have the least number of failures with Huawei.
And how does it compare with central, do some of those parks have central inverters?
We don’t have central inverters generally, it hasn’t really been a big thing in the U.K. We’ve probably had two central inverters, and that really led to us moving to string inverters, because if one goes down you really lose the whole of the solar park.
Monitoring is to spot faults is clearly important. What role does Huawei’s monitoring solution play in your decision making?
I take it you mean the Huawei Fusion system. We’re in close discussions at the moment because we’re moving to the Fusion system for those reasons, it allows us to optimize the performance much better. It gives us transparency and real time information.
How is your monitoring operating today, before Fusion is applied?
We have a system in place where we can compare to the Huawei Fusion system and see that it is much better. Fusion is more scaleable as well. So going into the future, the next five years the Fusion system will be better than our current one.
We’ve talked about ground mounted systems, but the commercial rooftop segment in the UK has long been said to have good potential, in particular with other parts of Anesco’s business, such as delivering energy efficiency measures to large corporate clients. What activity are you seeing there?
We see that as a growth market. It’s perhaps been ignored because of the rush of everybody wanting to build solar parks before the end of March [the final RO grace period]. So everybody’s been saying for the last five years, ‘we can build solar parks, and why should we go for the smaller rooftop one, when its easier to build on the ground.’ I see that as a huge opportunity. We are looking at asking Huawei for rooftop inverters. We are working with a very good rooftop inverter at the moment, but I’m sure that when Huawei come out with its rooftop inverter in the U.K. it will be just as good if not better.
Could you give a bit of background in volumes you’ve done with Huawei.
Perhaps 85% of our business is Huawei. Just to let know, how seriously we take partnering, two long term supply chain partners we’ve had to move away from, because they didn’t demonstrate the views we’ve just talked about.
Global Compliance and Testing Center: Huawei’s research campus in Shanghai performs a myriad of tests and performance analyses on the company’s highly-regarded solar PV inverters, setting a high level of quality and world-class standards that have underpinned its impressive global growth in such a short space of time.
Chinese ICT giant Huawei is set to make a splash this spring when it announces its entry into the IEC-standardized inverter markets of Europe and Australia at Intersolar Europe in late May.
The launch will be the opening salvo in its three-stage push into the global market for residential PV inverters. The Shenzhen-based company — a leading international supplier of string inverters for utility-scale solar plants — will follow this announcement with the official unveiling into the North American residential inverter market at Solar Power International in September, followed by an announcement into the Japanese market, likely in early 2018. It sees Europe/Australia, North America and Japan as its three core target markets outside of China.
“All markets are very important,” says Steven Zhou, Huawei’s general manager of residential smart PV solutions. “We can’t say one is more important than the other. Each residential market is different in terms of technology requirements, power ratings and the different solutions.”
In Japan, for example, Huawei has long known that simply retooling its offering for the European market would not suffice, given the country’s distinctively different JET certification standard. However, it understands local electrical requirements from its experience selling mobile phones and telecommunications equipment in the country, and it has an established sales and service network on the ground. So while its Huawei FusionSolar inverter will remain the core of its planned offering in Japan, it will be tooled to Japanese standards in three configurations, including a battery interface and optional optimizers.
Backed by its cloud monitoring service, sensors, 4G communication technologies and chipsets supplied by its HiSilicon unit, Huawei is capable of halving O&M costs for PV systems, according to Zhou. He declined to comment on pricing for its residential string inverter packages, beyond saying that they “will not be the cheapest” on the market.
The push into the residential inverter space is also supported by Huawei’s massive investments in R&D, with $10.99 billion of spending in 2016 bringing cumulative investment to $45 billion over the past decade. R&D expenditure last year alone was equal to roughly 14.6% of the group’s annual revenue of $75.1 billion. Zhou says Huawei “continuously” works to fine-tune its technologies from the initial development stage.
Put to the test
The Global Compliance & Testing Center (GCTC) in Shanghai is one of 15 R&D centres that Huawei operates throughout the world, on top of a facility to test inverter topology and algorithms in Sweden, an inverter architecture and design hub in Germany, and a chipset R&D base in California. But the work done at the GCTC — tucked away in a series of basement labs below Huawei’s sprawling research campus in Shanghai’s Pudong district — is dizzying in its scope.
The GCTC — which employs more than 180 people — conducts accelerated-life tests on Huawei’s inverters, as well as tests for vibration, icing, heat dissipation, salt corrosion, low pressure in high-altitude environments and resilience to impact and temperatures ranging from -55C to 80C.
The facility also assesses the electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) of the company’s inverters, including their electromagnetic susceptibility and emissions. The tests are conducted in accordance with the ISO/IEC17025 standard on top-shelf equipment supplied by companies such as Yokogawa Electric and Rohde & Schwarz, the latter of which is “supposed to be like the Mercedes-Benz of testing equipment,” according to Hariram Subramanian, Huawei’s CTO for PV inverter solution sales and marketing in Europe.
The GCTC includes absorbing chambers, which use bizarre-looking triangular foam protrusions on the walls to trap sound and eliminate echoes. The tests are key to ensuring that Huawei’s FusionSolar solutions do not emit noise in residential installations.
“The sound is trapped… what they get is only what is coming out of something,” says Xavier Daval, CEO of kiloWattsol, a Lyon-based PV yield-assessment firm that provides consulting services to Huawei. “So you have a pure analysis of the source — not the ambient result.”
The Shanghai research campus that GCTC is part of tests all of Huawei’s products, from solar inverters to mobile phones. The company’s commitment to R&D has underpinned its rapid advances in the PV inverter market, and extensive testing of its products continues to create the confidence it needs to expand into new global markets, according to Daval.
“A company like Huawei cannot guess if something is going to be good. They have to check it,” he explains, adding that the group’s background in communications technology made it a “no brainer” for it to expand into the PV inverter market.
“You can’t succeed in the time range that Huawei did without the back-up of a real global structure, logistics, factories and so on. It cannot be just the product — it’s the product plus supply chain. Huawei is a very special company — they are Chinese but they are very much an international brand.”