The man dubbed the ‘Sun King’ has returned to Australia to launch a flagship solar project in Sydney and has set his sights on filling a gap in the solar market with his new eArche module design that has achieved astonishing reductions in weight and size.
Dr Shi Zhengrong, who for a time was the world’s first clean energy billionaire, on Wednesday opens a 235kW solar installation at Sydney’s Maritime Museum, using innovative light-weight solar modules that Dr Shi hopes can tap into a massive unserved market for light-weight rooftop solar power in Australia.
“Solar has been around for a long time, almost half a century. In the last 20 years, the solar industry has gone from a niche market to one of the major renewable energy industries globally, Dr Shi said.
“We are entering the subsidy free arena, and solar has become a cheap source of electricity. In that context, we ask what is next?”
Dr Shi told RenewEconomy that he sees a continuing, and growing, market opportunity for solar power to be integrated into home design, describing the market as being akin to a ‘furniture-style’ market where customers are beginning to view solar power as an essential feature of the home.
However, due to technical constraints, many homes and businesses have effectively been locked out of the market for solar power.
To address this, new products will need to be brought to the market through his new Sunman venture that will allow solar systems to be incorporated into housing products such as roofing and shade structures.
“If you come to this ‘outdoor furniture’ kind of market, it is really dependent on the aesthetics and design. We developed the eArche to try and crack this new market, as it’s made with no glass and can be integrated into almost anything,” Dr Shi told RenewEconomy.
SunMan has developed the eArche solar module design, that avoids the need for encasing the solar cells in glass and aluminium structures by using composite materials, and as a result, has achieved a solar module design that is 70 per cent lighter, and 80 per cent thinner than traditional modules.
The combination of a thinner, lighter and more flexible design creates the potential for the solar models to be integrated into building materials and could be deployed onto structures with weight limitations.
SunMan sees the Australian market as being particularly attractive for the low-weight solar module design, which would facilitate the installation of rooftop solar systems onto factories and warehouses that may not be able to support the weight of conventional solar modules.
By expanding the potential market for distributed solar systems, SunMan also hopes to avoid some of the issues that have impacted large-scale solar projects.
“The large-scale solar farms are starting to face problems, from marginal loss factors and curtailment. The distributed market makes more sense and is becoming more popular. But if you look at commercial or industrial buildings, many of these buildings can’t handle the weight. We see this as the low hanging fruit.”
The Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney will serve as the host of Sunman’s flagship project in Australia.
The museum had been investigating the installation of solar panels on its buildings but found that the roof structures would not be able to handle the weight of standard panels, and combined with the 30-degree pitch of the building’s roof, traditional modules had to be ruled out.
The 235kW installation will supply around a quarter of the power consumption of the museum’s Wharf 7 building in Darling Harbour. The system will utilise SunMan’s eArche solar panel design, substantially reducing the weight of the solar installation.
“We came across a unique glass-free solar panel from SunMan. The 5.5kg light-weight panels could overcome the building’s structural challenges and also have the same power output as 20kg conventional panels,” the museum’s director Kevin Sumption said.
“When I developed eArche I knew it could unlock the potential for solar on buildings which were previously unable to support conventional glass solar panels,” Dr Shi said.
“eArche innovations such as its light weight, flexibility, high performance and competitive costs, means that solar can now be applied to any building design.”
The eArche solar model utilises otherwise standard monocrystalline PERC solar cells, that have been encapsulated into a structure using composite materials, that provide the same durability and performance as regular solar cells while achieving a dramatic reduction in the weight of the modules.
The company launched the light weight and flexible panels in Australia in 2017, and provided a demonstration of their potential through their deployment on a ‘solar train’ project in Byron Bay.
Dr Shi Zhengrong was among the first to achieve commercial success the early days of the solar industry, rising to become one of the first ‘solar billionaires’ and one of the richest people in both China and Australia.
Having completed his doctorate at the University of New South Wales under professor Martin Green, Dr Shi saw the opportunity to take the innovations developed in Australia out of the lab and take them to the market.
Dr Shi leveraged his experience at UNSW to start one of the first highly successful solar manufacturers in Suntech, which had grown to become the world’s biggest solar panel producer in 2011 before the company came unstuck due to a rapid expansion, just as a substantial supply glut hit in the international solar market.
Dr Shi now hopes to revisit his ealier success by tapping into a currently unserved market for solar PV and has won the backing from ARENA.
SunMan Energy has received a $6.6 million investment from the Southern Cross Renewable Energy Fund, which is a partnership between the Softbank China Venture Capital and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, with each group tipping in $3.3 million.
“The solar technology created by SunMan is an innovative and versatile alternative that can help to incorporate solar into buildings making solar a key part of the building process, and allowing solar to be installed on curved surfaces or heritage buildings,” ARENA CEO Darren Miller said.
“The Southern Cross Renewable Energy Fund challenges companies and entrepreneurs to think outside the box and SunMan has achieved this.”