When GCL Solar Energy began searching for an inverter company to supply its 83-megawatt solar farm in Wilson, North Carolina a couple of years ago, it had plenty of choices.
Solar has spawned lots of startups, including a small army of inverter manufacturers. But when Frank Wang, supply chain director for GCL Solar Energy, evaluated potential inverter suppliers, he knew the company couldn’t take any chances.
“As the final project owner, we are focused on the project’s power production and inverter reliability during operation,” he said. In other words, GCL didn’t need any of the uncertainty that comes with startup culture.
Which is why GCL ultimately settled on Huawei and the company’s signature string inverters. Huawei had already supplied inverters to a 280-megawatt project that had an annual failure rate of only 0.2 to 0.3 percent. GCL was also convinced of the wisdom of eschewing central inverters in favor of string inverters, which can be swapped out in a matter of minutes.
“Once the inverter has trouble, we just [unplug] the inverter and plug in a new one. It only takes 30 minutes to change,” said Wang. “This is very helpful for the production.”
In it for the long haul
Solar power plant developers around the world will understand the dilemma GCL faced.
Finding a reliable partner that will provide an innovative product that will function properly for 20+ years is not always easy in an industry still in its infancy.
“The financial stability of companies is a concern. As the industry consolidation keeps going, a lot of companies may not be able stay longer than the life span of a solar plant, which will create trouble for the O&M,” said James (Yuyu) Qiao, vice president of operations and product solutions for Huawei Smart PV Solution North America, a Chinese manufacturer of string inverters.
“In terms of the product reliability and performance, we see a lot of problems in the field. If the inverter goes wrong and the manufacturer is gone, it will be hard to find spare parts or the right maintenance skills, and then they will probably be in serious trouble,” said Qiao.
Clearly, this is not an ideal situation for solar developers, whose return on investment depends on years of consistent and reliable electricity generation. But this uncertainty is not unique to the solar industry. Decades ago, the telecommunications sector went through a similar phase of development, with a multitude of young and innovative companies vying for market share. But then a natural winnowing process occurred. “Over the past several decades, the major telecom solution suppliers have been reduced to just three or four,” said Qiao.
Qiao is acutely aware of the history of telecommunications. Huawei has its roots in that industry and was one of the major players to emerge from its intense early scramble for position. Qiao believes a similar process will play out among solar inverter manufacturers.
“With continuous industry consolidation, I believe we will see solar grow into a mature state in the next five to 10 years,” he said. “There will be far fewer players. But they will be bigger and the solution products will be more mature. Along the journey, the competition will be intensified.”
Positioned for success
This is good news for solar developers looking to forge long-term partnerships with inverter manufacturers. And there is ample reason to believe that Huawei will be one of the companies to emerge in a more mature solar industry.
Huawei -- thanks to its success in telecommunications -- is a large and profitable company. “This is a large company with $60 billion in annual revenue and a double-digit profit margin over decades,” said Qiao. “We have annual double-digit growth, so you can trust that we will stay for a long time in the industry.”
Huawei’s investments in its solar inverter business also demonstrate a long-term commitment to the industry. “We have over 800 R&D engineers in the solar business, and we have over 100 innovation patents in the solar area, as well as six R&D centers devoted to developing string inverters,” said Qiao. In total, Huawei has invested over $37 billion into its R&D efforts over the past decade.
As important as it is for solar power plant developers to find an inverter partner that will be around for years to come, it’s also vital for the inverter manufacturer to make a product that combines high performance, reliability, versatility and low cost. Increasingly, solar developers are turning to string inverters to provide those advantages.
For example, Huawei introduced its FusionSolar Smart PV Management System in 2015, which enables both cost savings and other important advantages by incorporating information communications technology into string inverters. Compared to central inverters, string inverters slash costs by replacing relatively expensive power electronics systems -- which use large copper busbars and other copper components -- with lower-cost silicon chipsets.
The digitalization of these string inverters also allows for remote monitoring of a solar plant’s performance at the individual string level. For instance, whenever module degradation or shading causes a string of panels to decline in performance, an alert is sent to the plant operator, who can then fix the problem quickly.
This means plant operators don’t have to have staff in the field monitoring performance -- a big cost savings.
“If you need people to stay on-site 24/7, that is a high cost,” said Qiao. “In the future, all devices on a solar farm will be connected to a network, and it will be possible to do remote diagnosis and proactive maintenance to identify issues ahead of time.”
String inverters also enhance reliability by eliminating parts that are especially susceptible to failure. Fuses, fans and LCD screens, in particular, can degrade quickly in harsh outdoor conditions. But even if string inverters do fail, the fact that they are comparatively small and lightweight means they can be replaced quickly and without the use of an expensive crane. “The string inverters can be swapped out quickly and the impact to the overall plant’s yield is minimum,” said Qiao.
Those advantages help explain why GCL has tapped Huawei for a lot more projects than just the solar farm in North Carolina. “We have about 2 gigawatts' worth of project experience with Huawei inverters in China,” said Frank Wang.
This article is sponsored by Huawei.