60 Years of Sharp Solar - Q&A with Peter Thiele
What would you consider to be Sharp’s biggest achievement over its 60-year energy solutions history?
Our longevity and ability to innovate and adapt. Sharp has the longest standing experience of any manufacturer in the solar industry; when our competitors started entering the marketing in the late 1990s Sharp already had 40 years’ experience with a wide range of solar panel applications. Sharp’s track record of over half a century has earned us a solid reputation in the world of solar – we have managed to exceed customer expectations globally over the years, and we are proud to be recognised as a strong and reliable supplier and product partner, offering a wide range of quality solutions.
What would you consider to be Sharp’s most significant development in solar technology over the last 30 years? What impact did this have for European customers?
Since 1959, Sharp's efforts in research and development of cell technology have led to ground-breaking solar solutions and many record-breaking cells. One significant achievement for Sharp was the development of the triple junction cell, in which three photo-absorption layers are stacked together. With this technology, Sharp succeeded in increasing the efficiency with which the cell absorbs sunlight at its various wavelengths, achieving the world's highest solar cell conversion efficiency for triple junction technology of 37.9%. This lightweight, flexible and minute module makes it an ideal solution for specialist applications such as satellites, airplanes and cars, or other consumer applications where very small cells are required. The benefit of this type of cell is that due to its size, a lot less raw materials are used to produce it and therefore it offers high efficiency cells.
Based on your experiences of the solar market in Europe, what are some of the biggest challenges the industry has faced over the last 30 years?
The biggest challenge was overcoming the political hurdles, moving solar from a niche application into a respected and vastly available energy source. This is of course now more accessible, with solar modules being used on residential properties for the self-supply of electrical energy.
One other obstacle I feel the industry has faced was reducing system costs. When Sharp first started producing solar technology it was very expensive, but with the rise in production, a lot of the production capacity was implemented in China, resulting in a reduction of system costs. This reduction meant that it was relatively cheaper to generate a kilowatt of energy from a Photovoltaic (PV) system than one generated from a nuclear power plant, meaning electricity generated from PV systems became extremely competitive.
How have customer expectations changed over the last 30 years?
When Photovoltaic (PV) technology first came onto the market it grew rapidly due to subsidy schemes that allowed investors to generate a certain return from energy creation. The attraction of these subsidy schemes meant that more customers started to install solar panels, creating wider visibility and a growing level of acceptance for solar. With this growing interest and demand for solar, customers started to put emphasis on strong brand leaders, such as Sharp. Most of the energy produced was used to feed into the energy grid, and for every kilowatt produced customers could earn money. Nowadays, due to system prices being reduced, it is now a more affordable technology and as a result, there are many more suppliers. Customers are of course looking for the best performance at the best price, but quality and reliability are still important, as is service.
What learnings can Sharp apply from its long heritage in the solar industry to stay ahead of the competition?
Our customers have always been at the heart of our business, and we make sure to listen to their requirements, from their motivations to implement solar technology to product specifics such as the size, wattage levels, guarantees and required safety features. Listening to customers and adapting the products and parameters to their requirements has always been important to Sharp, so that over time, we can remain a reliable supplier and recognised partner for the industry and end customers.
One key part to our customer experience and something we feel has been extremely valuable, especially in Europe, is having a local presence. Our service and support teams for EMEA are based in our solar headquarters in Hamburg, enabling us to provide expert advice and support to our customers for guarantees or quality claims whenever it is required. Our longstanding presence here has enabled us to become a reliable supplier, which is well recognised by our customers and partners in EMEA.
What role do you think solar energy can play in helping European countries to achieve a sustainable, low carbon future?
All expert studies see Photovoltaic (PV) and wind energy as a key pillar in future electricity supply, substituting nuclear and fossil power plants. There have been major examples of this across the globe, with many countries putting plans into place for phasing out nuclear power. For example, in Germany the government has implemented aggressive targets for renewable electricity generation, including plans for 65 percent of Germany’s electricity to be supplied by renewable energy sources by 2030, replacing nuclear and fossil fuel power plants. This is a trend we are seeing across Europe and China, which is continuing to expand its use of renewable energy. China produces more solar energy capacity than any other country in the world, at a gigantic 130 gigawatts.
With system costs reducing so significantly, solar energy is now affordable and accessible for developing countries, especially in Africa. As Africa receives more hours of bright sunshine than any other continent on Earth there is a lot of potential for solar energy. Many African states are now implementing programmes to push PV energy, from large scale plants but also on a micro level, using a simple single module with a battery and a light bulb. These programmes are seen more and more because of the system price reduction that we have seen over the last three to five years.
Taking these developments into consideration, we have recently started to sell solar panels to Africa and the Middle East from our office in Hamburg, Germany.
What excites you most about the future potential for solar technology?
The decentralisation and the affordability of solar energy mean that it has become widely accessible, and therefore extremely competitive with all conventional types of electricity generation. This has helped to strengthen the trend of self-consumption and self-sufficiency for single premises, where individuals can more or less generate and consume electricity as and when they need it.
Solar offers real potential to decentralise energy because of its flexibility. Unlike wind power, where windmills are normally grouped together, with solar the installation possibilities are endless, due to the variety of installation options and cell sizes. Solar saves on expensive grid connections and instead provides options for self-consumption, which has strong potential for the future.
What can we expect to see from solar energy solutions in the next 10 to 20 years?
Over the last few years, we have seen strong market growth with a lot more countries investing in solar, especially those that have increasing energy demand due to growing economies. Continents with the largest economic growth such as Africa, will cover their electricity demand with PV.
We are also seeing market growth across Europe with more people considering self-consumption and also selling the electricity with power purchase agreements. Support from policymakers will be key to the growth of solar in the next 10 – 20 years. The fight for climate change indicates real urgency to set regulations and political framework to ensure that solar is made accessible and simple to implement by all.
With the right parameters from the market, PV will be key to generating clean energy and Sector coupling will become standard in house building, this involves linking the electricity, heating and transport sector through infrastructure and storable energy carriers. This renewable electricity can then be used directly or converted into another energy form, for example electrically powered heat pumps that connect the electricity and heat sectors for heating houses. Sector coupling is forecasted to boom in the heat pump market in the next 10 – 20 years, and with PV generating electricity to heat, PV will be seen as the dominant way of electricity generation for the future.
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