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Higher performance with bigger modules a ‘no brainer’

From pv magazine Germany

pv magazine: You recently took over as the CEO of REC. What do you see as your most important task to start with?

Jan Bicker: REC‘s most important asset is – and has been for 25 years – our innovations, which is why we’re totally focused on expanding our successful REC Alpha Series. We’re launching a new-generation Alpha module that not only delivers significantly better power output, but also has much less impact on the environment at the production stage. It’s good that this entire question of the environmental footprint is gaining traction. We already have the world‘s lowest carbon footprint for our silicon production in Norway. But we have to keep up the momentum. We have also given our ‘classic’ products, the TwinPeak and N-Peak, a facelift upgrade, and plan to bring out new generations of solar panels in these series. We’re also looking to expand capacity at our Singapore site as well as with a potential new factory in France.

What does it mean for you to become CEO of a company that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year?

I can honestly say it’s a great honor to take over at the helm of a company that is such a pioneer in the solar industry. REC is basically as old as the industry itself. Not many companies can stake a claim to this longevity. Having a management team with so much experience and such a great track record also makes my job a lot easier.

Until recently you were REC’s chief financial officer. How did REC do financially in 2020?

Owing to the pandemic, 2020 was a year of mixed fortunes for REC, as for many other companies. In the first six months we had to contend with corona restrictions, the impact on supply chains and short-term uncertainties in global markets. What made it even more challenging for REC was that we launched the Alpha just before the pandemic struck. The timing was unfortunate, to say the least. But we turned things around fast, and recovered strongly in the second half of the year, with REC and the Alpha product doing very well on the markets, particularly in the U.S.

How do you think the pandemic has changed the solar industry in general and REC in particular?

In general, corona has reinforced the focus on sustainability at all levels – in policymaking, business, and also among consumers. New policy programs such as the Green Deal in Europe are springing up; corporations are making huge investments in solar power. And after months of working from home due to the pandemic, more consumers are now discovering solar as a simple way to cut electricity bills, be more autonomous, and contribute to reducing carbon emissions. However, seeing how the pandemic has disrupted supply chains, there are renewed calls at national level for countries to be more independent of products made in China. This of course has a huge impact on the solar industry, since China accounts for three-quarters of module production worldwide. This will increasingly work to the advantage of REC, which has production sites in Singapore, Norway and perhaps France in the future. What was positive for me personally was seeing how well REC is positioned for remote working. I find the collaboration between our global teams works even better than before corona. So even once the pandemic is over, working from home will continue to be part of the REC regime.

You want to build a new factory in France. How advanced are the plans?

The new module manufacturing facility in France would be an excellent project for REC, for France and for Europe in general. However, it’s also highly challenging. It involves so much more than just defining what equipment you need, what the production lines should look like and what production costs to expect. We also have to analyse precisely what the market will be for a “Made in France” solar panel – specifically, do I have the right distribution channels, not to mention the right network? This isn’t something you can put in place overnight. It takes years of experience and an excellent network of contacts. REC, with our long history in the industry, does indeed have these resources. We have just completed the public consultation process in France. However, there are still a number of stages to complete before the final decision, which will probably be by June.

Do you have any further plans to expand production?

We would like to expand production at our main site in Singapore. It would definitely be possible. We have already expanded before, and shown there is a real demand for REC solar panels “Made in Singapore,” especially in the U.S., where we in fact sell everything we supply.

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What do you expect REC’s top markets to be this year?

The U.S. is currently our top market, followed by Australia and Europe, especially the Benelux region. In their bid to outdo other players, Chinese competitors are announcing more and more powerful modules. How is REC countering this challenge? Can we expect more new developments this year? It’s not difficult to deliver higher power output if you make the module a lot larger. We’re not worried about that sort of development. What matters for us and for our customers, particularly in the rooftop segment, is power efficiency, or power output per square meter. Our Alpha solar panel has one of the best power efficiency ratings on the market. The current generation has a power output of 217 Wp/m2, and the new series will deliver even more. Bigger is not always better. There are also limits in terms of market acceptance. We see the limit at M6 for residential and M10 for commercial solar installations.

How do you see the role of solar energy in combatting climate change, and what do you expect of COP26?

I am convinced that solar energy is one of the key pillars to combat climate change. It’s cost-effective and doesn’t require extra land. A solar system is quickly installed, and it will operate for 25 years or more. People have been underestimating the potential of our industry for years. So what I expect of COP26 is that countries will realize they need to set far more ambitious goals to expand solar. In our climate study after the Paris Agreement, we calculated exactly what contribution solar can make, and what a forward-looking energy mix could look like, using Germany as an example. To hit the target, Germany would have had to install around four times more solar capacity in the past few years than it has actually achieved. This is possible, as we saw in 2010-12.

Where do you think we will be in 2050?

By 2050, solar will be the absolutely dominant energy source, in an electricity market that will by then have grown significantly. Thanks to technology innovations in solar panels and storage, especially large-scale storage, electricity will be very cost-competitive.

In transportation, fossil-fuel combustion engines will have disappeared; it will be much quieter on the roads. What we still don’t know is which fuel – electric or hydrogen – will come out ahead.

What are you most passionate about?

I am passionate about solar and the opportunities it presents for a future with easy availability of clean, cheap electricity. I also find it incredibly exciting that more and more countries are realizing that the access to cheap, clean power is a significant competitive advantage for an economy.

And then there is “Tiger Beer brewed by the sun.”

A few years ago, Tiger Beer Brewery installed REC solar panels on their roof in Singapore, where also our main production site is based. Marking their pride in the installation, every Tiger Beer now bears a label that says “Brewed by the Sun.” This makes me proud too, and it’s a reminder of just what is possible with solar energy and REC. I’m really looking forward to having a meal out in Singapore with colleagues or friends, so I can order a “Tiger Beer brewed by the Sun” – and play my part as an ambassador for more solar energy. There are still a lot of free rooftops in this world. It’s time to make them electric.

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Source: pv magazine