A fireside chat with LONGi Solar Australia’s Managing Director, Stephen Zhang about the company’s journey in the country, growing solar power capacity pipeline, key market challenges, and LONGi’s future plans and targets in the region

Local News

Stephen Zhang, Managing Director at LONGi Solar Australia talks about LONGi’s future plans and targets in the region

Australia’s solar power sector was not immune to a host of challenges that marked the first half of 2020, but the pipeline of solar power projects in the country has started building up fast. While new construction dipped to a four-year low and financial closure remained out of reach for a great number of projects, the second half of the year is looking more positive and the year 2021 is set to witness large capacity addition of utility-scale solar plants.

How would you describe Australia’s solar power market in terms of growth and opportunities?

Australia’s solar market is largely structured into two segments – residential and utility-scale solar. Of the two, residential solar segment has been growing rapidly especially now that people are staying at home much more than ever. By the end of first half of 2020, it has already seen an installation of 1.3 GW of capacity, which is significant.

In comparison, the utility-scale market has not performed as the industry was expecting at the beginning of 2020. The industry was expecting over 2 GW of capacity to be completed in this space during 2020 but so far only about 600 MW has been executed. Most of the large-scale projects have been postponed to 2021.

How is LONGi placed in Australia’s solar power market?

LONGi entered the Australian marketplace in 2017, and we have not wasted a moment in expanding our profile in the domestic solar market and providing local support and services to clients. We started with capturing the large-scale solar market and then moved on to tap the rooftop solar segment in a big way. The latter is growing 

We have been aggressively pursuing both rooftop and large-scale market share and have been successful in both segments. As a result, we are among the top three module suppliers in the continent and work with top IPPs as well as EPC players in the utility-scale segment. In the rooftop space also, we work with large-scale distributors and installers.

What are the key factors driving rooftop solar power capacity in the continent? What’s LONGi’s plan to increase its presence in this market?

Australia is emerging as one of the big rooftop solar market in the world. There is considerable policy support from federal and state governments especially for PV systems less than 10kW, and residential electricity prices are very high compared to those of other countries. Both the sunny climate and the fact that a large percentage of Australia’s houses are stand-alone structures with large roof spaces make it a region conducive to solar.

LONGi is already placed quite well in this space with its offering of Hi-MO 4 series. In the residential solar/ rooftop space, about 2.5 GW of capacity is expected to come online over the next one year and we are hoping to grab 12-20 per cent of this market.

While roof-top solar projects have been well established in most states over the past five years, large-scale solar projects are also charging ahead rapidly.

Talking about large-scale solar projects, how is the launch of Hi-MO 5 being perceived by LONGi’s customers? 

Hi-MO 5 is very suitable for ultra large-scale solar projects. By reducing the BoS costs and capex, the LCOE of the whole system can be improved with Hi-MO 5. This is especially beneficial for a market like Australia where installation costs are relatively high due to costly labour. This is the reason we are extremely keen to bring these high-power modules that will be highly suited to Australian market conditions. Majority of our customers for large-scale projects in Australia intend to use Hi-MO 5 series modules. Over 18 customers have already expressed their interest.

The production of these modules is likely to begin in September 2020. Given that most of the utility-scale projects are pushing back construction to 2021, we don’t see a very high demand before that. We foresee a demand boost for Hi-MO 5 in 2021. 

Adding the current projects which have been postponed to 2021 and the capacity originally scheduled for 2021, we expect about 3.3 GW of solar power capacity to be installed in Australia in 2021. We believe that most of the utility-scale projects will be going for high-power modules given the better economics of using these. Among our own customers, we are hoping that over 80 per cent will certainly subscribe to Hi-MO 5 series.

Any plans for local manufacturing?

So far, we do not have any plans to set up a local manufacturing line in Australia.

What are the key challenges in the Australian solar power sector?

Large-scale solar projects in the country face a few challenges that need to be addressed sooner than later. The continent’s large-scale solar boom faces serious constraints in the form of a long and unsuitable electricity network – making some ideal sites unattractive to project developers. Project development has been slow due to approvals and connections needed under the poorly understood grid regulations. Legacy regulations and a lack of transparency have caused last-minute roadblocks and costly delays for developers. FDI approvals also do not come very easily despite the fact that most of the large-scale projects have been financed by international capital. All these factors are a cause of concern for most of the investors.

What is the potential for solar plus storage in the continent?

With grid congestion and curtailment plaguing utility-scale PV development in many parts of Australia and the proposed 5-minute settlement by AEMO, live from October 2021, the case for coupling solar arrays to large-scale storage is becoming increasingly compelling. However, the steep price declines seen in solar PV have not yet been replicated in the batteries space and building a business case may be difficult in the very near-term. That said, LONGi Solar firmly believes that solar paired with energy storage is the ultimate energy solution for the world.

What is the outlook for Australia’s solar sector? Accordingly, what are LONGi’s targets for this market?

The future development of the Australian solar market looks bright, and we hope that the Australian government continues to step up its efforts to promote the development of solar power.

LONGi has an ambitious target for Australia which is among the most promising markets in Asia Pacific. For this year, our aim is to be among the top three suppliers in the continent and in 2021 we target to be among top two.