As investment in renewables trends sideways in its home market Chinese power giant TBEA is continuing its search for opportunities around the world, writes Jeremy Chunn.

In the competitive world of large-scale PV, a clean energy developer, financier and EPC company that designs and makes its own inverters, STATCOM, HVDC solutions, EMS and energy storage systems – to mention only a few things – will have a serious commercial advantage.

With manufacturing facilities across its homeland China and in India, and a business and marketing network in major centres across the world, TBEA is entering a new phase of international growth – and Australia is a primary focus.

In Australia, where TBEA runs an office in Adelaide, TBEA general manager Asia Pacific Sabrina Ma says problems with grid constraints are a bigger worry than a lack of federal government policy support for renewables. It’s a concern shared by other developers operating in Australia, she says.

“In Australia, right now we are targeting investment, EPC and products,” says Ma. “Out in the market, you cannot only do EPC. You need to provide the investment and financing. This is how you survive in the market right now.”

Opportunities in Australia

Ma is impressed with the standard of solar in Australia and is intent on looking at clean energy plant opportunities in Victoria, although grid constraints are a concern.

During a visit to Australia in November, Ma met with developers and heard of a preference for projects below 5MW to allay worries about grid connection issues for anything larger.

TBEA general manager Asia Pacific Sabrina Ma.

“We hope we can go far in the Australian market,” Ma says. “We still feel the potential is very high.”

As of September 2019, about 764GW of clean energy generation was installed in China, with PV making up 190GW. Investment has slowed, however. About 16GW of PV was installed in the first three quarters of the year, the lowest level in four years. The expectation is that the PV market in China will range between 40GW and 50GW a year for the next four years, according to data from IHS Markit, but the international market is expected to increase by about 100GW, or around 20%.

As a top five inverter brand, TBEA turns out 10GW of central inverters and string inverters a year. During a trip to the company’s operations in Xi’an, in China’s Shaanxi province, EcoGeneration was taken on a tour of an inverter factory and shown an onsite microgrid supplied by 2MW of rooftop solar PV connected to 1MW/1MWh energy storage in a 40-foot container that includes an energy management and battery management systems, making it capable of providing grid-support services.

Off-grid beginnings

TBEA earned its reputation bringing off-grid solutions to far-flung rural parts of China, working as an EPC and off-grid power equipment supplier.

The company has installed a portfolio of 12GW of projects, with about 9GW of PV and 3GW of wind. In 2018 and 2019 it broke the record for lowest bidding price for PV in China.

TBEA projects around the world include grid-connected PV plants in Pakistan and Egypt, where temperatures can reach 48˚C, a 120MW PV power station mounted over the waters of a fishery in China to a hillside plant in Malaysia. Four wind projects have been completed in China, with a total capacity of 550MW.

The world is full of opportunity if you have operations in all major regions, and TBEA is concentrating on international markets on the one hand and pushing advances to technology in its home market to satisfy a requirement by the Chinese government that new project use “the best solutions”.

Strong connections

But it’s not all about generation. In 2014, TBEA decided to invest in HVDC and in 2017 it completed what it says is the first ever 800kV/5GW converter. Xi’an Flexible Power Company vice-chief engineer Peng Bai knows the possibilities of HVDC and also its limits. He’s been watching developments in Australia, where the viability of planned gigawatt-scale plants in Tennant Creek and the Pilbara region rely on very, very long HVDC connections.

“I think most people underestimate investment for HVDC,” says Bai, who has worked on HVDC requirements for offshore wind farms and seen the technology used in Europe. For offshore in China, for example, he says 70km is “the kind of turning point or breakeven point” for HVDC.

Part of TBEA’s vertical offering includes its operations and maintenance platform TB-eCloud, which incorporates SCADA and remote monitoring, with 2GW installed in plants in China and Pakistan, among other locations. The application allows for drone monitoring that can cut the cost of inspections by around 10% at tricky locations, with TBEA product manager Xialu Zan showing how a drone can spot defective panels at a solar plant on Xuwen in the Guangdong Province.

An onsite microgrid at TBEA in Xi’an is supplied by 2MW of rooftop solar PV connected to 1MW/1MWh energy storage in a 40-foot container.

On track

As China is propelled along a path of economic development determined by central command in Beijing, the world is monitoring the giant nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and its willingness to switch to renewables. Viewed from cruising altitude during the two-hour flight from Shanghai to Xi’an, eastern China is a Legoland of highways, industrial zones and organised agriculture, with coal power plants dotted along the way identified by cooling towers and red-and-white striped smokestacks. As the landscape begins to wrinkle farther west, strings of wind turbines can be seen along snow-dusted ridgelines.

In 2018, about 71GW of clean energy capacity was added in China, according to BloombergNEF. In the same year, the country also added more than 20GW of coal plant. Despite a policy resetting that has slowed investment in solar and wind in China, clean energy development opportunities are abundant, the researcher’s Climatescope report for 2019 says.

The shift to non-polluting forms of generation in a nation of 1.4 billion people is a major endeavour, made more difficult as the government maintains its course to prosperity.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.