Shawn Qu: Canadian Solar, still just a start-up

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Headquartered in Ontario, but with most of its manufacturing based in China, Canadian Solar needs little introduction for regular readers of PV Tech. The company is climbing up international module supplier rankings each year, with the recently issued figures for 2014 taking Canadian up into third place worldwide, with 3,105MW shipped.

Similarly, the company’s founder, chief executive and chairman, Shawn Qu, will require little introduction for readers of the site. Former research scientist Qu described 2014 as a “record breaking year” for the company and said project acquisitions in Japan and the United Kingdom, and the purchase of US developer Recurrent Energy had allowed the company to restock its pipeline up to 8.5GW during the first quarter of this year.

Shawn Qu: Canadian Solar is still a start-up company at heart

PV Tech spoke to Qu at the recent PV Expo in Tokyo, held as part of World Smart Energy Week. The Japanese market is moving fast from the feed-in tariff (FiT) stimulated explosive growth that began in 2012 into a more diversified and – hopefully – maturing market. Canadian solar has become one of its biggest players and hopes to remain so as the market stabilises.

Canadian Solar power condiitioner, part of the company's diversified product offering in the Japanese market.

“The Japanese market has grown from a high growth market into a stable market. It used to be 1 or 2GW annual installations, before 2012. We have been here in Japan since 2009. Then we started to ramp up in 2013.”

Japan became increasingly important to Canadian Solar, Qu said, when the FiT was launched in July 2012 as a reaction to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and subsequent energy crisis that beset Japan in the dark days that followed 11 March 2011. Much has been made of the fact that ‘megasolar’, or utility-scale solar of 1MW capacity and above, has more likely than not seen the peak of its development activity in Japan. Land restrictions, grid connection issues and pressure on the public purse have all contributed to a widespread understanding that while around 50GW of projects approved for the FiT remain unbuilt and will most likely still go ahead, beyond that it is hard to see the solar energy industry earning its daily bread from large-scale projects alone. Qu believes the industry should not be unduly worried.

“We think the market will continue at around this level for a few years to come. But it's also good – in a mature market you start to see the government bring down the FiT. However the momentum of cost reduction is already there, so solar will continue going with reduced FiT but that's good for the taxpayer and good for society.”

While the costs and FiT have both fallen, Qu said, Canadian Solar’s ramping up in Japan has taken the company from shipping around 100MW each year in 2011 and 2012 – no mean feat in itself for a company entering the ultra-conservative Japanese market as it was then – to shipping “close to 1GW” to the country last year. Qu was at pains to point out that while he considers this to be “tremendous growth”, Canadian Solar is targeting stability. In addition to the company’s module supply deals to various projects, it is acquiring and developing some of the existing megasolar pipeline, as well as stepping up activities in the commercial and residential spaces.

While the move from utility-scale to commercial and residential solar is expected to be a trend followed by players in the Japanese market as a whole, Qu said he also thinks that all market segments of solar will start to see more and more associated businesses develop. He talks of his excitement that Canadian Solar will soon install a 4MW grid energy storage project in Canada, with storage set to become more and more of a feature on the grid worldwide (“give it a couple of years”). When it comes to Japan he said expected the residential market to sustain the industry’s true momentum. Japan’s residential market sees the majority of home installations sold in kit form, with modules and inverter packaged together, and moving further on Qu said home energy management systems (HEMS), a technology long talked about but deployed only sparingly, would be key as the country moves toward a deregulated market. So is residential solar a particularly natural fit for Japan?

“I think residential is always a natural fit, pretty much everywhere, especially in the OECD countries, look at those. Residential should always be a sustainable market. We started in Japan with the residential kits, when no one was a provider of the turnkey residential system kits. Megasolar took off in late 2012. So residential will continue to be there and to grow, it will get more and more combined with stuff like HEMS and also with the deregulated electricity market in Japan it will get more and more [into] the retail electricity service.”

A start-up mentality

During his conversation with PV Tech, Qu described Canadian Solar as a “teenager” with a start-up mentality and his intellectual curiosity extends to spending much of his time thinking about new markets, new technologies and new solutions to old problems, he said. His honest admissions that the energy storage industry, especially on-grid, is too new to hold any truly experienced and knowledgeable players, as well as his hopeful expectation for Japan’s electricity market deregulation, show that he is as happy to explore the problem as he is when the solution is found.

“Today’s Canadian Solar is one of the largest solar companies in the world but we still have a fair amount of a start-up mindset,” Qu said. “Even as one of the largest, mind you, we are only 13 years old.

“So we are just getting into teens, we are just a teenager. So as a start-up, a teenager, the company likes to learn so I’m very interested to see new ideas, new thoughts, from others. There may not always be answers and a start-up can do something which does not produce anything, but fun is always part of life, right?”

For the CEO of a publicly listed company, this sometimes does not mean much more than ticking boxes and signing off on big decisions, as well as presenting a public face to the world. Qu, however, says he is still engaged with the technological questions he has always found interesting, perhaps a reason why Canadian Solar has been so ready to embrace and move quickly with trends both upstream and downstream in the PV industry.

Qu says one “fun question” he has been working on is of making bifacial modules work with trackers and reflectors, and crucially connecting the dots from there to financiers.

“It’s going to be more expensive, but it should have a better temperature coefficient,” he said. “Maybe it will work much better in some tracker conditions but how can we get the dual axis tracker accepted by bankers?

“That’s a challenge. Maybe you will build a model (simulator). Bankers like to do this [simulated testing of] 35 years in the model which is just a computer game – but without that model they don’t give you the financing.”

Elsewhere, Qu says he is stuck by the sheer amount of data available and possibilities that further connectivity could take us to in the ‘internet of things’. From this way of amassing and assessing the infinitely detailed movements of individuals, to the possibility of running high voltage DC from one country to another à la Desertec, the know much slimmed-down plan to link desert-based renewables plants to centres of population, Qu is clearly a man who sees no limit to imagination, while his day-to-day duties with Canadian Solar no doubt keep him well grounded in reality.

One thing is for sure, Qu might find himself with his hands full looking after his rapidly growing teenager, but will certainly not find himself bored in helping one of solar’s biggest ‘start-ups’ take on big and small problems alike.

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