19 June 2009
Let the sunshine in
- report from Intersolar 2009, Munich
Two years ago the Intersolar fair had a pioneering spirit for an emerging field. Now, in Munich, there were more than double the number of exhibitors - which include Hong Kong firms anxious to make their mark in a sector for which the sun continues to shine, despite the global economic downturn.
Since the halls in the southwestern German town of Freiburg were too small, the fair moved to Munich a year ago. In a real sense, solar energy has finally arrived as big business.
Intersolar has also become more international. Some 60,000 visitors from over 150 countries took part this year from 27 to 29 May, compared with 52,000 from 140 countries at last year's event. The number of exhibitors grew by about 30% compared to last year, with 200 companies alone from China.
This year, the fair focused heavily on photovoltaic power, the field of technology and research related to the application of solar cells for energy by converting the sun's energy directly into electricity.
Only one and a half halls out of nine were dedicated to solar thermal energy, a technology for harnessing solar energy for thermal power. Nevertheless, there were important developments in this latter field too.
Gerhard Stryi-Hipp, Head of Deutsche Solarthermie-Technologie Plattform (DSTTP), said that by 2030 standard houses will be completely heated by the sun. "Even now there are realisable concepts, where solar thermal energy delivers the needed energy at a ratio of up to 70%."
One major issue with solar thermal energy is its requirement for long time storage. Developers having being trying to find new solutions to replace the huge tanks with a volume of tens of thousands of litres that are needed to save the energy won in summertime so it can be harnessed for winter.
New collectors offered at the fair by the German firm Consolar not only use sunpower but also the energy contained in the air.
Since global warming is expected to be a crucial issue for several decades to come, solar cooling is becoming increasingly important.
Thin film solar cells still win market share. They don't work as efficiently as silicon cells, but they're cheaper. Since progress is being made in terms of efficiency it's expected that thin film cells will increase their market share from 10% right now to 25% over the next few years.
Economic challenges for solar
The economic slowdown has not been entirely kind to the solar economy; there's an oversupply of PV module production, and as a consequence, prices have fallen by up to 30%.
Nevertheless, the forecast for solar technology is positive. "So far, the solar economy was focused on few markets like Germany and Japan," said Silvia Christel, an analyst at Greentech Media. "Now countries like Italy, France and Spain have discovered the potential of solar energy. And the change in US policy opens a new basis."
Solar-generated power is expected to be as cheap as nuclear or coal based power (on grid parity) according to some experts. In places which have more than their share of sunshine - such as Italy, Spain or California in the US - grid parity will be achieved over two to three years.
There was also a symposion at Intersolar, focused on concentrating solar power (CSP). This technology is relatively new and still very expensive.
CSP converts sunlight into heat via parabolic trough power plants. Using large rows of parabolic-shaped mirrors, the sun's radiation is concentrated up to 80-fold on the receivers. A special medium (transfer oil) is heated, and, via heat exchange, steam emerges that in turn drives traditional steam turbines.
Thermal accumulators enable reliable generation of electricity, even at night. CSP can also be used to store solar thermal energy for heating.
Hong Kong firms optimistic
Despite the economic slowdown, the three Hong Kong companies exhibiting at the Intersolar were not too concerned about the development of the market.
They were either very specialised or organised enough not to depend completely on solar technology.
The latter was the case with the Anwell, which sells PV panels. The firm exhibited for the second time at Intersolar and since its solar energy unit has been highly successful over recent years, subsidiary Sun Gen was founded in 2008 to pick more of the business.
Anwell operates in the US and Europe and, increasingly, in Asian markets. There are plenty of PV module producers on the market, but Anwell controls its entire production process with its own machinery, so has a hand on both quality and price, according to Adol Chan, Business Development Manager.
Sun Gen offers mono- and poly-crystalline silicon photovoltaic modules as well as a new generation of thin film amorphous silicon photovoltaic modules.
The subsidiary's profits flow from Anwell's long term expertise in engine construction. The firm developed a wholly automatic production line and technical solutions for silicon based, thin film solar cells.
Hans-Jürgen Helm, Managing Director for Europe, explained that the company has developed into three branches, producing optical storage media, organic light emitting diodes (OLED, aimed at replacing LED/Plasma TV technology) and PV modules.
Each area has its own brand, such as Sun Gen for the solar branch. Diversification has proved a helpful strategy because setbacks in one field can be softened by success in others.
But Anwell and Sun Gen are optimistic about the solar future. Should the market demand it, production capacities for turnkey module production can be massively increased.
Another Hong Kong company, Sol-Lite Manufacturing Ltd, exhibited for the first time at Intersolar. "Solar business has been rough for some time," said Connie Kwan, General Manager. "But since we have specialised products and deliver quality, for us the recession has not been too bad."
Sol-Lite has specialised in the production of mini photovoltaic panels for different industrial applications such as toys, outdoor lighting, outdoor security systems, battery charging, portable solar panel sets and car battery maintenance.
"We produced mini panels for a Japanese satellite," said Yung Hu Chen, the company's R&D Manager. "The PV modules are especially robust because of their special polymer frames." Sol-Lite also offers to solarise existing products.
Winfat Global Crossing Ltd of Hong Kong presented its products for the second time in Munich. "The crisis has not been too bad," said Stephen Hui, Head of Sales.
According to Hui: "prices have gone down, not only with PV modules but also with solarised products." Winfat has specialised in producing mini applications. Portable solar chargers for mobile phones, PDAs and MP3 players are on offer as well as bike headlights, a solar security light with an adjustable motion sensor, portable solar chargers and flashlights.
Global economic conditions have not beaten down the gates of solar fabs and the solar community is optimistic that there will be substantial sunshine growth to come.
from special correspondent Joachim Hoffmann, Munich