The long-expected sale of Bosch subsidiary aleo solar to a Taiwanese consortium earlier this year came after a drop in revenue of over 50% in 2013, with the Germany-based module manufacturer placed in liquidation. The company’s new managing director, Günter Schulze – formerly aleo’s chief technical officer – tells PV Tech that with the reopening of its 120MW module factory and the launch of a 300 watt high-efficiency module, aleo solar is looking to take on Europe’s residential markets with a renewed sense of purpose and a focus on technical innovation.
Figures for last year showed a drop in revenue of more than 50%, which was followed by aleo solar’s takeover in May by a Taiwanese-led consortium – how have things changed since then?
Aleo solar AG, or the main part of it, was sold to a Taiwanese company, Sunrise Global, in May. It was not really selling a company, more just the essence of the company. We had to completely rebuild. But now, we are back and trying to ramp up the business to its goals. We are really ramping up PV module production with some people and equipment from aleo solar AG, which gives us some experience to build on – but nonetheless it’s a ramp up of a new company.
It was announced a while ago that Bosch would sell aleo solar. That did not give a lot of confidence to customers, who were hesitating to deal with aleo solar, because they didn’t know what the outcome of this deal would be. That made revenues drop so sharply. What changed? This is practically a new company with a new profile. Aleo solar AG and about 80% of its production had been modules with polycrystalline cells. Now we are focusing on monocrystalline cells, with high efficiency. For us that’s innovation, not making a mass [market] product but a high efficiency product. That’s clearly the future for solar.
What can you tell us about the company’s aims and tactics going forward, especially in the light of the “sharp contraction” of European markets which aleo solar previously said had “dominated” business in 2013?
We’ve seen that even if the market is dropping dramatically, the residential market in particular will remain at a high level, because residential customers intend to become independent. We are following this and asking “what will the residential customer focus on?”
They want safety, they want the system to work properly, and they would like to enjoy having it on their roof. Even if space on the roof is limited or you have 10 modules on your roof and consider that to be enough and you don’t want to use the rest, maybe for architectural reasons, or because you want to have a good direction to the sun. If you put all this in one basket you begin to understand the demands of the residential customer.
So, residential customers will go for high efficiency. Mono is more reliable – I know a long list of ‘sicknesses’ from solar cells, but the list of ‘sicknesses’ for mono is shorter than that of poly. So we are focusing really on high efficiency and residential, especially in the European market.
Long term, we are saying ok, if we use high efficiency cells and use them in the right way, we must also do them on the module. I put in one frame 250w or I put 300w, in the end, you also look for cost reduction because you are utilising these materials much better. That is because we are also not going for special cells, we are working with a PERC cell, which I think is an improved mono cell, but is not really a different technology. If we put these together and simply make our processes as stable and as good as we can, we can make high efficiency modules. That is exactly what the residential market at the moment needs – and what will keep solar reliable and will also find the right price in the market.
The new 300 watt module – what was the thinking behind that? I gather it works in low light, which implies you will continue to target markets in Europe, like Germany or even the UK?
This market [Europe] should really demand our modules. We are using a normal PERC cell, normal mono technology. With some improvements, you can get a high low light output. A HIT cell is not as good in low light as the PERC cell. We will stick with this technology. We are also doing other things, anti-reflection glass, high transparent EVA [encapsulant sheets], looking into shadowing of busbars, we can gain some light from this.
Bringing these elements together in the 300w module, not changing but just improving the technology, we get 300 watts, and we get very good low light behaviour even increase from our standard test conditions. We are proud of it, now we must make clear to the market what advantages the market can have with our modules.
In the UK also, aleo solar almost completely disappeared, but we are looking to make our ‘comeback’. I hope we will be successful!
The 120MW nameplate capacity factory in Prenzlau is up and running again – what does that mean for the company?
We found an investor, a Taiwanese company, Sunrise Global, a good cell producer. They took over 100% of the plant in Prenzlau and with our already quite good engineering team working together with engineers from Sunrise, it was possible in a short time to optimise. Not only the cell, or just the module but both together. For me that is really an advantage of this deal, that we are practically now vertically integrated and that means both the cell producer and the module producer are working together and focusing on the end product. This really brought the breakthrough to the 300w module.
Many manufacturers are moving downstream or otherwise increasing their interest in the whole value chain – does aleo solar have similar plans?
We are interested in growing, but we want to grow on this level of technology and with the right costs. If you look at the last few years, all of the companies [in solar] struggled, even the Chinese companies. We have a new set-up of aleo that finds us in good financial condition. We will not play with that.
We think we can grow quite a lot and together with Sunrise, which has also now been taken over by silicon producer Sin-American Silicon Products (SAS), we have a module producer and the end of the supply chain. That makes us really really strong. SAS has an intention to grow, like we also do. However, we don’t want to grow only through price competition, but by going a step ahead with the technology. I am happy personally if we become an innovation leader – and that’s my target.
Speaking to you compared with many other executives and managing directors, it seems you are very interested in the technical side of things – how was it to move from CTO to MD?
I must say I feel more strong in the technical area! Having said that, I have also worked extensively in management. In Poland, Hungary and China – I even worked for five years in China as a general manager. In this respect I was always responsible for the whole business, so it means I have some experience. Here though with global responsibility, there are some areas where I have to learn something more, but this is possible, even at my age!