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Japan's feed-in tariff and CIS thin-film PV in the global market: An interview with Solar Frontier Executive Vice President of Communications and Operations Brooks Herring

Brooks Herring
Brooks Herring

Brooks Herring serves as vice president for Solar Frontier K.K., a 100% subsidiary of Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K. Based in Tokyo. Solar Frontier is the world’s largest manufacturer of copper indium gallium diselenide (CIS or CIGS) thin-film photovoltaic (PV) modules. Solar Frontier has a 30-year history in the solar industry and recently opened the world’s largest CIS production plant in Miyazaki, Japan.

Brooks has led the International Business, Corporate Planning, global Supply and Distribution, and Brand & Communications functions during his time with Solar Frontier. He now focuses on Brand & Communications activities where he is responsible for overall communications, branding, and public relations. Prior to his current role, Brooks established efficient logistics operations throughout world and established Solar Frontier’s offices in Europe and the United States.

Brooks serves in the dual role of Executive Officer with Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K., working on special assignments across the downstream oil business and reporting to the President.

Prior to joining Showa Shell, Brooks was based in Singapore serving in General Manager roles for the Shell Group’s global Retail business.


Solar Server: What is Solar Frontier's perspective on the current state of the Japanese solar market?

Brooks Herring: Now that the feed-in tariff is in place in Japan, we're seeing a flurry of activity. Many were waiting for the regulations to be finalized before they moved ahead, and now that they are finalized people are understanding the steps that they need to go through and the process for receiving the feed-in tariff, so I think we are seeing a lot of new things happening in the marketplace.


Solar Server: And now that the feed-in tariff is in place, what is Solar Frontier looking at in terms of Japanese market versus international market?

Brooks Herring: Last year, we sold about 70% of our modules into the international market. This year we will sell about 40% into the international market.

So it's going to be about a 60-40 split, Japan versus international.


Solar Server: You have said that you expect the Japanese market to really pick up in 2013. Can you talk about how you expect that development of the Japanese market to happen over time?

Brooks Herring: If you just look at the three big segments in Japan, they are like anywhere else. You have the residential segment, the commercial segment, and the utility-scale segment.

In Japan, in terms of size, 0-10 kW systems are used for both your own consumption, and selling excess electricity back into the grid, and you receive the feed-in tariff. The 10 kW - 2 MW sector has a pretty expedited process for getting grid connections.

So I think you will see orders and projects completed within 2012 in those two segments in Japan.

When you get over that 2 MW scale, then you have a slightly more complicated grid connection process. So some of those projects are going to get pushed back in 2012, and then into 2013. With that said, I think what Solar Frontier brings to the table is, in addition to our high-performing CIS modules, we are able to help guide people through the initial permit process, to get the projects approved, help them secure EPCs to build their sites, and then make the grid connection process hassle-free for them.

So we can take customers through from start to finish in the Japan market. We have been there 100 years. We already have two large facilities that generate electricity right now, an LNG-fired turbine, and then we have a cogen plant at one of our refineries. Those are grid-connected, we know how to do that, and that is what we can offer people that are coming into Japan who want to develop projects.


Solar Server: At the recent CIS panel at Intersolar North America, Navigant commented on the relatively high costs of producing CIS versus the recent decline in cost for crystalline silicon modules. Most CIS manufacturers are very small, and they are working without the benefit of economies of scale. That certainly can't be said for Solar Frontier.

Can you comment on Solar Frontier's cost structure and cost per watt compared to other modules, particularly in the Japanese market?

Brooks Herring: We haven't been very specific about our cost structure, that's been intentional. It keeps coming down, but certainly that's an area that we have been focusing on to keep driving costs down.

Sometimes we get the question about the high cost of labor in Japan, but remember that for a 900 MW plant we only have 800 people there, which is significantly different from most of the crystalline silicon players, especially in China. We recognize that the cost structures for other technologies continue to come down so we've got to continue to bring ours down too. I can tell you that we have brought them down markedly in the last 12 months and we are continuing to work on that.


Solar Server: A large portion of the cost for CIS glass modules is the float glass itself. And specifically the transportation of the glass to the factory, as a delicate material. Any thoughts about that supply chain and possible co-location of a float glass plant?

Brooks Herring: We've always talked about that. I think the ideal arrangement would be to have a float glass plant on the front end of a CIS plant. So, yes, we've talked about it, but the technology is always changing, too. And before somebody builds a big glass plant they want a very long-term commitment.

And the question is how long will the technology be such that we sandwich CIS between two pieces of glass? We are always developing new products that may not require as much glass in the future.


Solar Server: CIS boasts a superior temperature co-efficient, and its superior performance in hot climates. Are you seeing this as a real benefit in some of the developing markets?

Brooks Herring: Absolutely. If you look at our temperature co-efficient, we are still lower than most of the other CIS manufacturers.

Our temperature co-efficient is .31, andputting that in the hot climates of Saudi Arabia, where we are installing 10 MW worth of Solar Frontier panels, is going to make a big difference.

We have a test facility at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. It's a small test facility of 10 kW doing very well, and then we have a 500 kW project on Farasan Island, in Saudi Arabia. And from an economics perspective, it's great, because the Solar Frontier panels are generating lots of kilowatt-hours, and it's displacing the need to barge in diesel into that island, and use diesel generating capacity. So it's a really great solution for that particular island.


Solar Server: Is there anything that has gone on in the last year with Solar Frontier, since we last talked, that you want to tell our readers about?

Brooks Herring: Well, I think that we're a big player in this project that Greg (Solar Frontier Americas Chief Operating Officer Greg Ashley) is heading up, called the Catalina project, with enXco. We've already announced 28 MW into that project, and there will probably be more to announce later.

We finished a 28 MW project in Germany, and that's all grid-connected. Greg said something this morning that really stuck with me. If you look at who our customers are, we've got a number of sophisticated customers that really understand how well our product performs. They run the numbers, they understand the concept that projects get paid back based on the kWh they produce, and as a result of that they choose our modules, because they recognize that we produce more kWh per kilowatt peak, and that's very positive.

We've run simulations that look at our modules, crystalline silicon modules, cadmium telluride modules, all the same price, very same price, standard efficiencies as of today, and when you do all the numbers, we have a lower cost of energy. And that's quite impressive.


Solar Server: That is something that (Global Product Manager) James Plastow emphasized at my visit to the Kunitomi plant: Not measuring cost per watt but cost per kWh.

Brooks Herring: When you look at the models for these projects, what matters on the front end is how many kWh, because that is what you are selling. And then it's how much do you get for each of those kWh, and how much does it cost to install the system.



Interview conducted by Solar Server International Correspondent Christian Roselund on July 12th, 2012