The Longi haul: Focus on Australian EPC profitability

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More than 500 senior representatives of the Australian large-scale solar industry convened in Brisbane on Thursday. The main theme seemed how to clear a path for bringing the $15 billion of utility-scale PV projects under construction — and much more proposed — to the grid, given current constraints on transmission infrastructure, and risk profiles increased by an uncertain policy environment.

Very few speakers at the Clean Energy Council (CEC) Large-Scale Solar Forum mentioned the election elephant in the room; the “need for stable policy”, although frequently referred to, received less oxygen than testing creative and collaborative responses to a number of challenges that could remain slow-fix, whatever the stripe of the next Australian Government.

Boyal Mao, General Manager of Longi Solar Australia — principal sponsor of the event — approached the challenges facing the country’s so far meteoric pace of transition to renewable energy in terms of solutions to high EPC costs.

He noted that, “the Queensland Government launched some new regulation around installations”, referred in passing to the complexities of grid commissioning, and said that increased output and reliability were two fruits of R&D that are making the benefits of solar PV ever more viable in a global environment gasping for carbon reductions.

Longi boasts the world’s highest industry spend on R&D — US$380 million over the past five years — and Mao told pv magazine, “Our responsibility is to provide the technology innovation, to provide the best product to help the industry. That is our mission.” The resulting reduced cost of construction, installation and therefore generation is one of the ways he sees for the company to fuel the solar boom and drive return on investment, both for Longi and for developers.

The company introduced its new Longi Hi-MO 4 series of bifacial, half-cut modules, with a base rating of 420 Wp, at the CEC event, just a day after the global launch in Munich, Germany.

Says Mao, “If you are building a 100 MW solar farm, the difference between using 340 W modules, and our new product is you install a lot less panels, so you can spend much less time on construction,” says Mao.

Longi literature documents reductions in construction costs on a 2.75 MW solar farm in Germany, using Longi’s Hi-MO3 375 Wp panels compared with the Hi-MO-4 420 Wp technology. The number of required modules and pile foundations were reduced by more than 10.6%; combiner boxes by 11.8%; and cabling by 7.9%. As a result, says Mao, land and labour costs are also reduced.

“Today the EPC profit margin is quite low in Australia, and EPCs take a very high responsibility for risks associated with project development,” says Mao, who adds, “I believe the Longi system will help EPCs to improve that margin a lot.”

The company believes the impact of its technology can be most profitably demonstrated in Australia, and has formed key promotional and distribution partnerships to familiarise the Australian industry with its products and philosophies. Since introducing a small range of solutions to Australia over 2016-2017, Longi has achieved a 320 MW market footprint in 2018 and anticipates adding another 450 MW in 2019.

It intends opening a local office in Sydney in Q3 of 2019 — having incorporated an Australian subsidiary in Australia in March, just before the Hanwha Q Cells patent-infringement litigation was filed in this market. It is currently recruiting a local team of around 11 with the intention of providing tailored sales solutions and service to Australian customers.

“Before, we had to do international trading with local customers. Some customers were maybe not really comfortable with that. With a local office everything will be under Australian law,” says Mao.

He adds the reduced time of response of a local team of service engineers will also better serve Australian EPCs — “even though a seven-hour flight from China is not long, it’s not immediate, and with an office here we can get to customer offices and sites any time they need us.”

But he says the most important thing will be to respond to Australian requirements “in a local way”.

Mao, who led Longi’s German operations for four years and is charged with expanding the company’s reach in the Australia-Pacific region, believes that the solar industry as a whole is beginning to appreciate the significant productivity gains delivered by continuous small improvements in cell degradation.

Longi has collaborated with the University of New South Wales’ School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering (SPREE) faculty over four years on research projects that have contributed to significant reduction in degradation of Longi modules: first-year degradation in its Hi-MO 4 range is less than 2%, and subsequent degradation has been reduced to 0.45% per year. The company now offers a 30-year power warranty on its new product.

Says Mao, “The biggest advantage [of the Hi-MO 4] is its power output. It can really reduce the onsite building cost.”

As the world’s biggest supplier of monocrystalline PERC cells, with around 45% global market share, Longi also emphasises its financial stability and profitability — net profit in 2018 was CNY2.558 billion, total assets were then valued at CNY43.165 billion and Bloomberg New Energy Finance rates it in the top two PV enterprises in the world. The point, says Mao, is that Longi will be around to service and honour its warranties.

Bringing reliability and transparency of operation, and applying innovation to experience gained were strong themes of the CEC’s Large Scale Solar Conference. Watch this space as we explore the industry’s new thinking on overcoming persistent hurdles to grid connection in coming days.