A trip to the inverter-maker’s headquarters shows its ability to adapt to consumer demand for PV solutions big and small, writes Jeremy Chunn.
With an 11MW solar system dominating its roofspace, Sungrow’s manufacturing plant in Hefei, population 8 million, runs like a huge self-energised organism, with robot arms, automatically guided vehicles and moving production lines. Workers with anti-static lines attached to their shoes stand on earthing mats as quality control officers in pink caps hover like hummingbirds.
Today some of the team are finishing off a special batch of SG250HX units – its 1,500V string inverter – in the company’s signature orange, their covers etched to commemorate a corporate milestone: “100,000,000kW, 2019.12, Special Limited Edition.”
The journey to this point started in 1997, when local university professor Cao Renxian saw the possibilities for PV and set up a new venture. By the end of 2019, more than 100GW of Sungrow technology had been installed around the world and the company offers inverter solutions and storage for utility-scale, commercial and residential applications, as well as floating PV plant solutions.
Once the Hefei plant is fully operational, the inverter company’s global annual production capacity will reach 50GW, including 3GW from its factory in India.
No time to rest
As solar installations grow in number and capacity to supply clean energy in a world that is turning away from coal and gas, PV technology companies have been running to stay ahead of competitors. Sungrow carved out an early lead in inverters and today enjoys a 15% share of the global market. As utility-scale solar projects are developed in China, Australia and around the world, the manufacturers of inverter technology are adapting their production lines to suit demand for central inverters or string inverter types.
“We can say if the frontier for utility scale is very large and the land is very flat, a central inverter is better for both cost consideration and the performance consideration,” says Jack Gu, the president of Sungrow’s PV and energy storage division.
“We always say the design will meet the demands, so we will propose the right product to the customer in a very specific application. Personally, I want to sell more string inverter products, but I think in some applications central inverter has its very unique advantages.”
Residential solar is a major focus for Sungrow in Australia and Gu says the company also plans to turn its attention to the commercial-and-industrial and utility-scale markets. “That’s also very important for us,” he says. “We will expand our portfolio in Australia for more opportunities there, and storage is also a very important direction for us. Our strategies will put more effort in the product development and technology innovation to decrease the cost of batteries.”
The company keeps track of developments in Australia and the significant storage projects here that offer an arbitrage or FCAS revenue model. Sungrow technology is already installed at storage projects in Western Australia and South Australia. “We are ready to go there,” says managing director overseas strategic key accounts Thompson Meng. “Next year  will be pretty promising for Sungrow in Australia.”
During a media tour of the Hefei plant in December EcoGeneration was shown the central inverter R&D centre, where containerized inverter solutions are tested and built, and an electromagnetic chamber, built at a cost of more than $US5 million, that could have featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Electromagnetic interference can be a problem with powerful electronics equipment, where radiated emissions may be conducted through a line or radiated from devices. In the dampened silence of the vast paneled space technicians test an inverter mounted on a wooden rack, monitoring and minimizing the possibilities for interference.
Research is a foremost consideration for a company with close relations with four major Chinese universities and Australia’s UNSW and about 40% of Sungrow’s 3,000 personnel work in R&D.
“With the evolution of semiconductor devices we hope to increase the power density of the product and maintain the same weight level,” Gu says. “We will incorporate in the future new technologies like artificial intelligence, 5G and blockchain technologies into our whole product portfolio – to enhance performance.”
Tested to the limit
There is something homely about Sungrow’s Hefei operation, where an allocation of workers is allowed to live rent-free for up to three years – lunch and dinner provided. Such dedication to an employer is rare in other parts of the world, and incentives like that are rarely offered.
In the testing centre technicians are glued to their laptops as inverters in the “ageing room” are run for 48 hours at a constant 50°C. Elsewhere, workers standing on earthing mats add componentry to inverter cabinets as rows of small fans extract ions away from their workstations.
Around the world, between 121GW and 154GW of new PV projects are expected to be built this year, according to BloombergNEF. Analyst HIS Market expects a cost reduction due to large-size wafers and efficiency improvements will see prices of solar modules fall by 10%, which will further stimulate domestic and foreign markets.
As the world transitions to renewables any clean energy company that doesn’t focus on product development will be left at the roadside. Gu suggests for residential applications the integration of storage and the PV inverter as a possible direction. “That’s also the strength of Sungrow,” he says, “because we have both products.”
To ease the worldwide buildout of large-scale utility solar, Sungrow has developed a 6.8MW turnkey solution for single blocks of PV-plus-storage or pure PV, where pre-assembled product and O&M skills are combined. “For the global market, the key driver for utility-scale projects is the cost,” Gu says, “but for the residential market it is function.”
The company commands about 15% market share of the Australian residential inverter market.
Storage is still seen as being a far-from-bankable solution in many applications. “There is no stable policy for storage yet; it has to rely on the market and not policy,” Gu says. “Some developers use PPAs to guarantee their investment risk is controllable; for some owners they can go to merchant. It depends on how much risk you can take.”
In China the residential electricity fee is very low, he says, much lower than for business owners. “In China it’s very challenging [for storage to be economically viable] for the residential market. But for other parts of the world I think the residential storage market is very promising in the future.”