SunPower buys SolarBridge to develop next-gen AC module product offering

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Major PV energy provider, SunPower, is to acquire SolarBridge Technologies, a US-based small-cap microinverter firm for an undisclosed sum.

Specialising in integrated microinverter technology, SolarBridge’s technology would be developed to operate with SunPower’s high-efficiency modules for the residential and commercial rooftop markets, according to SunPower. 

“Solarbridge was the third largest microinverter supplier to the United States in revenue terms in 2013,” said Cormac Gilligan, senior analyst at IHS to PV Tech. “It had expanded outside the United States into international markets since early 2013, with some success in Australia.” 

IHS forecasts that AC modules will be the fastest growing microinverter type, growing over 100% per year to reach over 800MW in 2018, as they significantly reduce ‘soft costs’ such as labour which currently makes up a significant proportion of total system costs in the United States.

SolarBridge highlighted during the week of Solar Power International in October that it had conducted a select survey of US installers that noted the challenges for installers in selecting the best technology for applications due to the vast hardware choice in the market. 

“Installers today are overwhelmed with the array of hardware choices in modules, inverters and power electronics. SolarBridge customers have been telling us that they are achieving significant cost savings with TRUEAC modules, and this study was commissioned to shed some light on the soft costs associated with these hardware decisions,” said Bill Mulligan, president and chief executive officer, SolarBridge Technologies in a statement during SPI. 

“Installers told us that, quite literally, they would have had to walk away from one out of four jobs without the use of microinverters or AC modules. This highlights the clear advantage of ACPV technology in making an installation business more productive and profitable,” added Mulligan

However, according to a GTM Research report earlier in 2014, the competitive landscape in the PV inverter market is intensifying and consolidation is ongoing. 

“While there are numerous companies attacking the MLPE (module-level power electronics) space, three companies – Enphase, SolarEdge and Tigo – account for over 93% of the total market share of shipments and installations, with Enecsys, SolarBridge, Petra Solar and others lagging much further behind,” said MJ Shiao, the report’s author and a senior analyst at GTM Research. “The first-mover’s advantage has allowed these players to make critical R&D and distribution partnerships and to gain significant market traction ahead of newcomers. Nevertheless, we expect significant shakeup in the rankings especially as traditional inverter companies like SMA and Power-One continue to develop and promote their own MLPE products.”

Indeed, SMA Solar had been slow to develop its own microinverter technology and has suffered from late market entry. SunPower has long used re-branded string inverters from SMA Solar in its system (kit) product offering to its large installer base in the US. 

“Numerous examples of vertical integration in the US residential market between large installers/EPCs and BOS suppliers, such as Solarcity’s acquisition of Zep Solar, have occurred in the last year. These have largely focused around reducing installation costs. IHS predicts that this trend will further continue in 2015, as suppliers continue to look to optimise their complete system offering, and streamlining their route to market,” added Gilligan from IHS.

The move by SunPower to directly buy and develop power electronics for its own PV modules could be a blow to SMA Solar’s business in the next few years. SMA Solar is already struggling from fierce competition and loosing market share. 

SunPower is also competing against SolarCity and companies such as Vivint in the US residential market and rivals to SolarBridge include Enphase, the leading microinverter company, which is a key supplier to these types of PV installers. 

“SunPower's acquisition of SolarBridge and its high performance microinverter technology will allow us to develop a differentiated product specifically optimised for our high-efficiency solar panels,” said Tom Werner, SunPower president and CEO. “This is the beginning of integrating electronics into our world-class solar panel technology. In this case, the combined result will provide our residential customers with an elegant, reliable and complete solution that fits their home specifications, including system design flexibility, ease of installation and maintenance and improved overall aesthetics.”

SolarBridge was founded in 2004 and had approximately 75 employees. The company had SunPower as an existing customer, including JV manufacturing partner BenQ and module manufacturer, ET Solar as customers.

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