Kudos, PV solutions for the masses and IP wars: the importance of being Q Cells

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Myungsin Shim, Marketing and Key Account Director for Q Cells Australia, has long been sunstruck by the potential of solar technology. She joined Hanwha Group in 2006 and segued to the company’s solar division, Q Cells ,in 2012 as Global HR Manager. Her experience of the solar industry has since spanned roles in product management, sales, and strategy and planning, in markets from her home country of Korea, to China, Japan and Germany. 

Shim’s last gig before arriving in Australia three years ago, was in India where, as director of the company’s Emerging Market Business Division, she drove recognition and penetration of Q Cells into the utility-scale solar market.

In advance of launching the company’s second-generation Q.Home integrated energy-storage solution at All Energy in Melbourne this week, and with intellectual property litigation against competitors progressing through the Australian courts, Shim spoke to pv magazine about Q Cells’ ambitions as it passes the 10-year milestone of its operations in Australia.

Although Q Cells boasts a number of high-profile utility-scale projects in the Australian landscape, it is now squarely focused on rooftop residential and commercial customers, on making quality technology accessible to the masses, says Shim. 

She’s excited, but measured — cautiously optimistic about market opportunities.

Shim begins: “The solar industry is extremely volatile, even for players like us who’ve been in this industry for 20 years. It never fails to amaze me how fast and how disruptive this market is.”

pv magazine: What do you recall of arriving in the Australian market in January 2017? What stage was the market at? 

Before being assigned to Australia, I was working in India for two years, and that was just fascinating because India is 99% a utility-scale power-plant solar market. You don’t see distributed generation as you see in other markets such as Europe, the US, Australia and Japan. So when I came to Australia the penetration rate of solar at a residential level amazed me; as did the sheer bombardment of so many different tiers of product and technology out there in the market. 

What milestones stand out for you in 10 years of Q Cells’ presence in Australia?

We’ve done quite a lot of small-to-large utility scale projects, a sector we’re not in at this point but which played a big part in putting our name on the Australian map. 

For example, we did Darwin Airport, which because of its geographical location is extremely challenging for any product — you’re looking at high winds, cyclones and extreme climate conditions. Q Cells came out on top because we’re the only solar module manufacturer in Australia to test all the modules it supplies in the market at James Cook University Cyclone Lab, and our module has the highest wind rating of comparable products in the market.

At a large scale, Q Cells supplied the PV modules for Bannerton Solar Farm, which is co-owned by KIAMCO, Foresight Group and Hanwha Energy Corporation.

We also have Emu Downs, Mugga Lane and we are quite popular among the wineries. Together with electricity retailer AGL, and UGL, one of the top EPC providers in Australia, we were able to put together several milestone projects over the past years. We’re proud of them and we’d like to continue, but the utility market in Australia is looking quite grim.

What has Q Cells achieved in the rooftop market?

As of the first half of this year, according to our internal analysis and various market reports such as SunWhiz, Bloomberg, Wood Mackenzie … our modules reached about 12% market share in the residential and commercial rooftop segment of Australia. That puts us probably in the top two. Last year we had 10% market share, so we’re on a steady growth track.

How will you celebrate Q Cells’ 10 years in Australia?

I’m not sure I’d call it a celebration because, to be honest with you, this year was probably the most volatile in my memory in solar. Every single day something has been going on. It might have been our competitors coming into the market with pseudo new technology. Then we saw consumers turning on to storage solutions, and although their interest level is growing, we’re not sure whether they’re ready to invest. So the question was whether we’d continue our development schedule in that area. 

At the same time there was a lot of publicity around the entire ecosystem of clean energy. ABC News profiled the issue of how PV modules will be recycled and how that plays into the sustainability of the planet. People also started to question details of the process and quality management of the product they see on their rooftop.

So this year we put aside celebration for All Energy, and it’s been more about us really trying to disseminate the information that the market demands in a more timely and proactive way, rather than in reactive mode.

We are more than thrilled to be able to unveil two most-awaited products: the 25-year extended product warranty PV module, and our residential storage solution.

What has enabled Q Cells to apply a 25-year product warranty on soon-to-be-landing-in-Australia Q.Peak DUO-G5+ and Q.Peak DUO-G6+?

We can’t go into specific details, but I will say that we can provide that extended product warranty because over the past 20 years we have continually invested and put our efforts into being an R&D- and quality-led company. 

By extending our product warranty to 25 years, we are confident that we are able to provide our customers with that added layer of performance and financial security, because we are by far one of the most bankable solar solution providers in the industry. 

Tell us about your decision to launch the Q.Home battery in Australia. How is it different to other storage solutions in the market?

This year at All Energy we’ll be unveiling the residential storage solution called Q.Home, and the Q.Home for Australia is generation 2 of the original Q.Home that Q Cells launched two years back in Germany.

As a mega solar manufacturer, we have been looking at the energy-storage opportunity for several years. Globally we see this cycle of penetration of PV modules into the market, then subsidy fades away at a government level. In markets like Germany and Australia, consumers want to take charge of their energy bills. 

Q Cells has always tried to provide affordable, smart energy solutions. We want to make sure that whatever we develop meets the mass market at an approachable price point.

So it was quite natural thinking for us: If we can make 10 GW of PV modules a year, imagine what we can do if we can provide that much storage or next-generation solutions for the entire global market. That’s where that motivation comes from. We want more people to enjoy this clean and infinite energy through our quality and advanced technology.

Flexibility of the system is also important: Q.Home includes a hybrid inverter of 5 kW and the battery of 4, 8 or 12 kWh, depending on your energy consumption.

It also comes with a backup function, so if the grid fails on you, the stored energy in Q.Home automatically kicks in to support critical power appliances in your home, such as your refrigerator and internet routers. 

Is Q.Home brand agnostic? Could you use it with any solar modules?

No, it’s not brand agnostic. But Q.Home can be integrated with installation of any new Q Cells products and can be retrofitted to any existing Q Cells installations in Australia.

Q.Home is unique in the sense that it is the only PV-plus-ESS integrated solution under a single, fully wrapped warranty by a single provider. So if something goes wrong, the consumer and installer do not need to worry about who to call, or face a three- to five-month wrangle between module manufacturer, inverter manufacturer and battery manufacturer trying to blame each other for that lack of performance. For our customers to enjoy peace of mind — the ultimate confidence —  the solution is for them to install everything Q Cells. 

What can you reveal about Hanwha’s launch as an energy retailer in Australia this month, in partnership with Octopus Energy?

It is coming, I can tell you that much, but the response to that question should be from Andrew Butler, Managing Director of Hanwha Energy Retail Australia.

Hanwha Group has always been very committed to Australia; we have three strong affiliates playing in this market: Hanwha Q Cells, Hanwha Energy and Hanwha Energy Retail.

The name of Hanwha Energy Retail brand is Nectr; you’ll hear more about it in coming weeks.

What stage has Q Cells reached in its patent-infringement suits against Jinko, Longi and REC in the Australian Federal Court?

I can’t discuss any details pertaining to the ongoing lawsuit, but I can say that Q Cells took these actions to protect its intellectual property, and it’s saddening to see that not many people recognise the importance of continually protecting IP. 

We believe IP is vital in order to secure R&D in the solar industry as a whole, and ultimately in driving the competitiveness of PV technology compared to any other form of energy.

We remain quite confident in the merits of our claim. I know there are a lot of blackmarket products out there. 

What other opportunities are you excited about in the Australian market?

For me the most exciting thing about the Australian market is that it’s no longer driven by government and policy. Consumers can drive this market. Solar penetration on a consumer level, and the level of awareness that Australians generally have of their part in making this country and the planet more sustainable for generations to come, is amazing. It’s higher than anywhere else in the global market.

We’re excited to be taking part and contributing as a technology provider, as well as a service provider in terms of electricity retail with Hanwha Energy Retail and our partners in Australia. 

Through the development of home energy systems and monitoring systems, we can enable the virtual power plant that Australia has been talking about for the past two or three years.

Once that puzzle is all together and integrated, there’s more we can do to share our learning in other markets, such as the US, so that they can accelerate their maturity in that energy segment — that really excites us.

 

Amended on 27 October: Q.Home battery storage capacities are 4, 8 or 12 kWh (not “4, 8 or 12 kW”)