Green Business Singapore Interview – Phoenix Solar Pte Ltd

There has been great interest in solar energy in Singapore over the past few years. To understand more about solar energy technologies, issues and trends, we have the privilege of interviewing Mr Christophe Inglin, Managing Director of Phoenix Solar Pte Ltd.

About Phoenix Solar Pte Ltd

Phoenix Solar Pte Ltd (Phoenix Solar) is the Singapore subsidiary of Germany-based Phoenix Solar AG. The company designs, engineers and installs solar photovoltaic power systems for grid-connected and off-grid applications. Since it started operations here in early 2007, Phoenix Solar has secured contracts for over 400kWp of PV systems in Singapore, Malaysia and China.

1. What are the opportunities and challenges of solar energy adoption in Singapore?

Let’s start with the biggest challenge: solar energy still costs 2-3 times the retail electricity tariff in Singapore. Very few people or companies value the green benefits of solar energy enough to justify such a large cost premium. Most will prefer to wait until the cost comes down or the government offers a clear incentive to adopt solar energy systems.

Why install systems today? Singapore’s opportunity comes from being a pioneer in the Equatorial region. So far the main markets are all in temperate climates (Europe, US, Japan, Korea), and products are designed to suit those markets. Singapore can develop solutions to meet the specific challenges posed by our tropical environment, giving us the advantage as lower costs lead to huge regional markets opening up.

A second, longer term opportunity comes from demonstrating to our neighbours how solar energy can lower our carbon footprint without compromising our living standards. As an island nation, it is in our best interest to encourage China, India, Indonesia and others to combat global warming by reducing GHG emissions.

2. The high up-front cost and long payback period of solar systems has deterred some consumers. What are some of the solutions to overcome these problems?

Singapore is already pursuing three tentative solutions on a relatively small scale:

  1. The CERT programme (Clean Energy Research and Test bedding) funds up to 70% of the installed costs of PV (photovoltaic) systems on selected government buildings. For example, Marina Barrage, HDB, Gardens By The Bay, Yishun Hospital and Singapore Polytechnic.
  2. The Solar Capability Scheme (SCS) is open to private developers and funds 30-40% of the installed costs for PV projects on new or renovated buildings with minimum Green Mark Gold award level.
  3. BCA’s Green Mark programme is now compulsory for all new buildings with a GFA above 2,000m². They revised the scheme in April to award up to 20 bonus points for renewable energy systems.

The above three programmes are already having quite an effect on the Singapore market. I estimate barely 50kWp of PV systems were installed in 2007, growing to around 400kW in 2008 and close to 2,000kW in 2009. That is an impressive growth rate, albeit from a tiny base.

3. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the best and 10 being the worst, rate the Singapore government’s efforts in supporting the solar energy industry.

That depends on which part of the industry you consider! Singapore gets a good grade for attracting solar manufacturing (eg REC, NorSun, Solar-Fabrik, Oerlikon) and R&D (Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore) to the country.

But compared to the good examples set by Europe, US, Korea and Japan, Singapore gets a very low grade for its half-hearted support of solar energy installations. For example, there is no incentive scheme at all for private residential systems.

There are several minor programmes, such as those listed above. And the Energy Market Authority (EMA) has done a good job by eliminating almost all administrative barriers to grid-connected PV installations (as recently as 2 years ago, grid-connected systems were generally not allowed).

What is missing is a clear goal for the adoption of solar energy in Singapore – for example to aim for solar to contribute 20% of our electricity by the year 2020. With a clearly defined and measurable goal, it is much easier to align policies towards the common aim.

4. As the chairman of the Clean Energy Committee, Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore (SEAS), what are your roles and responsibilities?

Our scope covers renewable energy and hydrogen fuel cells (which are not a renewable energy source, but are a clean fuel). We aim to promote the clean energy industry development through:

  • industry training, forums and seminars;
  • trade delegations to regional markets;
  • interaction with govt agencies to encourage relevant policies, or develop standards and codes of practice where relevant;
  • supporting new start up companies in developing effective business plans.

We have established 4 sub-committees to focus on the key sector-building activities – Solar, Market Development, Information/Database, and Start-ups.

5. What is the future of building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) and thin-film solar panels?

These are two quite different topics.

BIPV will remain a small niche for a long time because of its higher cost and complexity, while offering lower energy yields.

The higher cost and complexity comes from customised solutions for each building. Very few architects are prepared to use standardised, mass-produced components, so the BIPV solutions are invariably customised in small volumes for each project.

The lower energy yield is because BIPV modules are seldom positioned ideally to capture the sun (ie on an unshaded roof). They are often integrated into facades, where they only get the sunlight for part of the day.

The biggest application for solar modules is to generate electricity at the lowest cost possible, so manufacturers standardise their products and mass produce them for this purpose. The high volume products are not designed as building elements and seldom meet the required building codes to serve as structural elements.

Thin film technologies increase the variety of PV modules. They come on rigid or flexible substrates, and there is even one in tubular form instead of the more established flat plate type. Modules can be opaque or semi-transparent.

The 4 main types of thin film are amorphous silicon (a-Si), micromorph silicon, Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) and Copper Indium Gallium diselenide (CIGS), which all have different efficiencies and aesthetic properties.

Thin films have the potential for very low cost mass production, but not many manufacturers have mastered the technology sufficiently to scale up to mass production, so traditional crystalline silicon modules still dominate the market with a share of 80-90%.

6. Where do you see the solar energy market in Asia heading in the next 5 years, considering the current financial crisis?

The financial crisis will affect every industry in the short term. For the PV industry, I see it affecting two main areas:

  1. Manufacturers will find it harder to finance expansion plans with debt or by IPO. Those that already secured enough funds or completed their recent expansion before the financial turmoil began, will have an advantage. I expect some industry shakeout and consolidation among the manufacturers, and many of those manufacturers are based in Asia.
  2. In the short term, PV power plant projects will find it harder to raise debt financing, meaning that some projects will be postponed, and prices will drop a little. But banks will soon conclude that solar power plants in countries with feed-in tariffs are one of the most secure and reliable investment for their cash. So the power plant market will pick up again in the mid term.

But a separate phenomenon brings good news for Asian markets. The high prices for modules over the last few years were driven by the strong Euro and by high feed in tariffs in Spain creating more demand than manufacturers could supply. Both the Spanish and German governments have revised incentive schemes downwards from 2009. Meanwhile, module production has increased further. Combined with a weaker Euro, this means we can expect lower prices in Asian currencies.

Lower prices of course lead to more market opportunities, as more customers will find the economics of solar power systems appealing.

In countries with relatively high power prices, such as Singapore, we might even see grid parity by around 2014. At that point, electricity from PV will compete against conventional power, without needing any subsidies or incentive schemes. Then we can look forward to an explosion of demand for PV.

Singapore’s success in the future regional market will depend a lot on how well it develops its home market over the next 2-3 years.

This interview is conducted with Mr Christophe Inglin, Managing Director of Phoenix Solar Pte Ltd. Visit Phoenix Solar’s website at www.PhoenixSolar.sg.

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