SOLAR ENERGY -Interview with Matthias Ermer, Managing Director, Renewable Energy Corporation

Q: Could you give a brief description of your company?
The Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) was established in Norway 1996 as a silicon-wafer manufacturer. After a number of years with impressive growth rates, the company became the world’s largest multi-crystalline wafer manufacturer. The promising future of the solar business initiated investments into cell and module plants in Scandinavia. Given the background of the growing demand for the wafer raw material, the company decided to invest further into a silicon production plant in Moses Lake in Washington state, USA, in 2002.
In 2006 the owner decided to go public, since when REC has been listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange. Given the profitable growth of the company and the fast-growing market, REC began exploring the possibilities of building a worldwide, integrated solar energy complex. In 2008 the decision was taken to build the Singapore wafer, cell and module plants –– an investment of more than 1.5 billion Euros. The fully integrated factory was officially opened in 2010 and is one of the world’s leading photovoltaic (PV) production facilities. In 2010 the REC Groups revenue was more than 1.7 billion Euros with an earnings-before-interest-and-taxes (EBIT) margin of 7%.
In order to become a fully integrated and leading player in the PV business, REC established its own project and system business in 2009. REC Systems, with its global headquarter in Munich, Germany, has since then successfully developed a track record of more than 70MWp of installed and financed solar power plants. REC Systems is covering the entire value chain from development, turn-key engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) and operations-and-maintenance (O&M) services globally. In addition REC Systems is supporting and structuring project financing in selected cases.
Q: Among the world’s producers of photovoltaic panels, you have received several awards and have been ranked number one. What makes your product unique?
REC did and will continue to invest significant amounts into research and development and into ongoing optimization of our production processes. This is combined with a far-above-average quality-control process and organization. We do not accept any compromises on quality nor in the way problems are dealt with. Becoming the winner in the globally recognized Photon Module Test in 2011 is evidence that we mean, live and deliver quality.
Q: In the past, the products of your industry were known for being expensive and not really competitive in comparison to “normal” electricity production methods. What is the situation today?
Compared to the situation some years ago, we now see a completely different picture. Module costs have come down by more than 50% over the last three year and, in parallel, the efficiency of solar-cells has seen significant improvements. In combination with cost reductions with the other components, electricity generated from a PV solar system today can compete easily with conventional electricity generation costs in regions with a lot of sunshine. In addition, a PV system does not require a lot of infrastructure to provide electricity to people, especially in remote areas or where infrastructure would have to be strengthened to meet the demand. And the best still was, is and will be: the fuel is free and unlikely to increase in cost!
Q: As climate change creates greater pressure to reduce the use of hydrocarbons, how do you see the future of PV panels?
We should not lie to ourselves. PV can contribute to hydrocarbon savings, but is only one of many factors in reducing emissions. Energy-saving activities and measures, like renewed and efficient heating systems and conventional power plants, can contribute much more and much faster to this, especially in developed countries. And if you consider the fact that there are still no speed-limits on German highways, it seems to me that there is some kind of a strange double morality existing in these discussions.
Q: You have carried out some huge projects in Europe. What was your biggest project and what were the main challenges?
REC Systems successfully completed about 70MWp of projects in 2011. The majority of that work was carried out in Europe. The largest installation is a 23MWp single-axis tracking system in Italy, which took only four months to install and start operation.
Q: Will there come a day when PV panels can be used in places like Scandinavia where there is little winter sunlight?
This will probably still take a while given the existing low cost of hydro-power generation and the lower hours of sunshine compared to other regions of the world. In that region the off-grid and consumer applications will be the most interesting ones for the near future.
Q: Do you provide solutions on a lesser scale and, if so, what do you consider as the minimum?
Certainly, especially when it comes to roof-top installations and off-grid applications. The latter ones can be solar pumping systems, mini-grid systems or any other kind of stand-alone electricity supply which is today provided by diesel, gas or battery generator-sets. We can also combine PV with existing equipment under a so-called fuel-saver model. There is a natural minimum set by the economics of cost/income and this depends, of course, on each specific case. But it does certainly not make much economic sense to install a system (or a number of small systems) below 100kW.
Q: If you had a message for the international community, what would it be?
My message is to consider solar PV panels seriously as one of the most suitable solutions for sustainable electricity supply. The time when PV was exotic and expensive is definitely over. In most sunny regions of this world PV is a competitive solution to provide electricity. This is specifically valid in cases were distributed electricity supply is required, as in remote villages or where expensive diesel generator-sets are run today. And there are also solutions available to bridge the night-time gap on the basis of hybrid-systems.