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The Political Economy of Thailand’s Renewable Energy Ambitions
How did Thailand grow its nascent renewable energy sector?

 

thediplomat 2020 12 30 4In 2010, Thailand generated 3,426 GWh of electricity from renewable energy sources such as solar power. The entire system used 164,829 GWh that year, so about 2 percent of the total came from renewable sources. By comparison, coal and natural gas combined to generate 148,202 GWh, or 90 percent of the country’s electricity supply. Like many emerging markets in Southeast Asia, the economy of Thailand has been growing rapidly and driving ever-greater demand for electricity. If a switch to more sustainable energy is not made in a timely fashion, the country risks getting locked into a high-carbon model of economic development.

The good news is that things have changed quite a bit over the last decade. In 2019, renewable sources generated 21,402 GWh of electricity, roughly 10 percent of the system total. Meanwhile, coal and natural gas fell from 90 percent of the energy mix to 75 percent. This might strike some as modest, but the pace of growth in renewables has accelerated considerably in just the last few years. If they stay on this course, renewable energy will soon be a dominant component of Thailand’s energy mix. How did Thailand get on this path?

From a policy perspective, the answer is clear. Beginning in 2007, the government of Thailand rolled out a series of incentive programs in which the country’s main energy utility, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), entered into purchase agreements with small power producers and agreed to buy renewable energy from them at reasonably attractive prices and for a set period of time.

These kinds of contractual guarantees can help jump-start investment in nascent renewable energy sectors by basically guaranteeing developers there will be a market for the energy they produce. The levelized cost of solar and wind power has come down so quickly in recent years that it’s debatable whether these kinds of guarantees are still even necessary. But certainly in 2007 when the cost of developing solar was considerably higher than it is now, the government’s use of such schemes signalled its commitment to diversifying the energy mix.

But it takes more than just a well-designed policy instrument to induce growth in renewable energy at scale. It also requires buy-in from key stakeholders, perhaps most importantly from state-owned power utilities. In Thailand, EGAT is the key player. The utility is not only the sole operator of Thailand’s national power grid, it also produced 50 percent of the grid’s power in 2010. In order for any kind of renewable energy investment scheme to actually work, EGAT would need to genuinely be onboard with it.

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Ultimately, EGAT is the entity tasked with signing all of these contracts with renewable energy producers, adding to its expenses and long-term liabilities while reducing its market share, since it is in direct competition with those same developers. So how do you get EGAT to work against its own interests and cede market share to renewable energy producers?

This is the critical question when looking at renewable energy transitions, because the political economy and energy mix of each country will yield a different answer. In well-developed markets, as renewable energies become less expensive fossil fuels will tend to naturally be phased out as a result of competitive market equilibriums. In less competitive markets dominated by politically powerful fossil fuel interests such as Indonesia, renewable energy has struggled to make inroads or get buy-in from the state-owned utility.

In Thailand’s case, EGAT ultimately had little choice as the country’s production of natural gas – its main source of electricity generation – has been declining since 2014. EGAT and Thai energy regulators were forced to confront the reality that the natural gas that has electrified the country for decades was running out. They could either import energy from their neighbors (upon whom they would become increasingly reliant for supply of an essential strategic good), or they could accelerate the development of domestic energy sources such as solar. It would appear they have prioritized the second option.

There are still large coal-fired plants being developed, and the dual nature of EGAT as both the primary off-taker and one of the largest producers of electricity in Thailand creates political and economic complications. But the pace of renewable energy growth has stepped up considerably in the last few years, while the ability to power the grid with domestically sourced natural gas has an increasingly narrow time horizon. These factors suggest renewables are likely to continue growing as a share of Thailand’s energy mix.

This post has been published by The Diplomat 

 

 

NEPC to raise power feed-in tariff
Move seeks to entice more households to take up solar rooftop schemeA worker installs solar panels at a parking lot.  Many private companies are keen to have solar panels on their properties to generate their own  electricity. Chanat Katanyu

The National Energy Policy Council (NEPC) agreed on Friday to raise the power feed-in tariff to 2.20 baht per kilowatt-hour (unit) from 1.68 baht for the household solar rooftop scheme, effective from Jan 1, 2021.

Kulit Sombatsiri, permanent secretary for energy, said the approval by the NEPC chaired by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is likely to entice more households to produce and sell power to the state grid.

Launched in May 2019, the household solar rooftop scheme offers a feed-in tariff of 1.68 baht per unit for 10-year contracts, aiming for a combined 100 megawatts a year between 2019 and 2028.

Two state-run agencies, the Provincial Electricity Authority and the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, are tasked with buying output of 70MW and 30MW, respectively.

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The solar project for households is in line with the new version of the national power development plan (PDP) 2018-37. Under the PDP, solar power is projected to total 12,725MW by 2037.

However, the household solar rooftop scheme has drawn lukewarm interest from households. As of Dec 25, the scheme generated only 2.2MW, much lower than the target.

The government recently cut the target for the scheme to 50MW a year.

Mr Kulit said the NEPC also agreed to extend state power purchases from the solar rooftop scheme to cover schools, hospitals and water resource development projects for agriculture purposes, with a combined 50MW for 10-year contracts at 1 baht per unit.

The council assigned the Energy Ministry to improve laws and regulations to facilitate such institutions participating in the scheme.

In a related development, the Energy Ministry said it is offering a retail oil price cap at PTT stations between Dec 26 and Jan 3, 2021, and a cooking gas price cap between Jan 1 and March 31.

This post has been published by Bangkok Post

 

 

 

Tesla to install second giant battery in Australia's power grid

CANBERRA: France's Neoen SA will partner with Tesla Inc to install one of the world's biggest lithium-ion batteries in Australia after reaching a grid connection deal with the power market operator.

The 300-megawatt Victorian Big Battery will be located in the southeastern city of Geelong and use Tesla's Megapack technology. It will be double the size of Neoen's Hornsdale site in South Australia, which was the largest facility when it began operation in 2017.

"Installing the new system in Australia's second-most populous state will help to modernise and stabilise the local grid, which is targeting 50% of its power to come from renewable sources by 2030,'' Neoen said in a media release.

The Paris-based company is targeting the battery to be operational by the end of 2021.

Battery storage technology is being deployed on an ever-growing scale to meet demand to back-up the surge in wind and solar power generation. About $951 billion will be invested in the technology through 2050, with two-thirds deployed on utility-scale systems, according to BloombergNEF forecasts.

"Tesla is seeing rising demand for grid-scale batteries and the new Australian project will offer further evidence that the systems are suitable to back up intermittent wind and solar power,'' the company's chair Robyn Denholm said in a webinar.

"What we're seeing is many energy operators around the world don't want to renew their fossil fuel-type turbines, they want to put storage in, they want to harness renewable energy," he said.

Founder Elon Musk has previously said Tesla's energy business could one day rival its electric vehicle division in size.

Neoen's Hornsdale lost its status as the world's biggest storage battery to a facility near San Diego, which began operation this year. Several other larger battery projects are currently planned, including in the US and China, BNEF data show.

"The big battery will help protect our network in summer, create jobs and drive down energy prices, as well as supporting our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic," Lily D'Ambrosio, Victoria state's minister for energy, environment and climate change, said in a separate statement.

Victoria's grid still relies heavily on aging coal-fired plants, which have become increasingly unreliable during periods of extreme heat.

The state has experienced power outages in recent summers as the system struggled to cope with a surge in demand as businesses and households cranked up air conditioners.

"Neoen's new project in Victoria will be supported by a 250 megawatt grid services contract with the Australian Energy Market Operator, and will also partner with network provider AusNet Services,'' the company said.

This post has been published by Bangkok Post

 

Renewable power scheme conditions set

Energy officials have unveiled new conditions for the much-delayed Energy for All renewable power scheme, following a two-week revision ordered by Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow.

They expect to issue the first licence to participants in the project as early as this year, with construction to begin next year, said a source at the Energy Ministry who requested anonymity.

Officials revised Energy for All to support the government's measures to relieve financial stress among people affected by Covid-19.

Among the changes is an increase in power generation capacity from 100 megawatts, as originally planned, to 150MW in the first year.

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Each power plant is to operate on 3MW of capacity.

Half of the 150MW of electricity will be produced from biomass, especially from fast-growing trees. Farm refuse is no longer described as a main fuel in the scheme, the source said.

The remaining 75MW will be generated by biogas.

The source said power plant operators will buy fuel from nearby registered communities, known as community enterprises, and share 10% of profit from electricity trade with them.

However, plant ownership between private investors and communities still has not been decided, the source said.

Other renewable resources such as solar and wind farms are no longer included in Energy for All.

State-owned power plants, power generation facilities subsidised by the government and those encountering legal disputes will also be excluded from the scheme.

According to the source, the new conditions will be forwarded to the National Energy Policy Council and the Energy Policy Administration Committee, chaired by Mr Supattanapong, for consideration.

The process to select participants based on bidding will be overseen by the Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Provincial Electricity Authority, the state power distribution arm, will sign power trade contracts with the selected operators.

Mr Supattanapong said earlier some conditions need to be rewritten because his ministry wants farmers who grow biofuels, not private investors, to gain directly from the scheme.

Echoing the minister's intention, M.R. Warakorn Worawan, an adviser to a community in eastern Thailand, said benefit-sharing must be done in a fair manner and appropriate fuel prices must be set.

Prasert Sinsukprasert, chief of the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency, expects to start inviting interested investors to join Energy for All this year.

Investment value is estimated at 12 billion baht.

UAC Global Plc chief executive Chatchaphol Prasopchoke said earlier the scheme received a warm welcome from many community leaders.

He said if the conditions for participation and business models are well designed, they will result in a good return for communities.

But many experts are concerned about the huge surplus of power generation capacity reserved, currently near 45%.

This concern led to the need to reduce power capacity under Energy for All during the first year. An appropriate power reserve is estimated at 20-25%.

UAC Global Plc, which owns two biogas-fired power plants in Khon Kaen, is ready to take part.

This post has been published by Bangkok Post

 

AlphaESS gets the very first KBIA certificate in China

Recently, Korea Battery Industry Association has issued the very first KBIA certificate to China. And it’s a great honor for AlphaESS to be the one.

KBIA certificate is Korea's most authoritative energy storage lithium battery standard certification, with strict tests and high-level qualification standard. It is reported that Tesla abandoned its plan to launch Tesla energy storage products in South Korea due to the failure of obtaining the KBIA certificate.

During the period 2017 to 2019, there have been nearly 30 accidents in South Korea's energy storage equipped power station, involved many well-known local brands such as LG and Samsung. The continuous fire incident of energy storage has brought huge negative impact to South Korea. The security problem needs to be solved.

Given the current situation, the industry certification standards became more stringent for overseas enterprises who want to enter the Korean market. Recently, the Korea Battery Industry Association (KBIA) issued the China's first KBIA certificate (latest version), the most authoritative lithium battery standard certification in Korea, marking a new breakthrough in energy storage businesses.

On September 24, on behalf of AlphaESS, Neil Wang, the product director AlphaESS, received the certificate at the 10th China International Energy Storage conference in Shenzhen. The KBIA certificate covers the whole series of energy storage products, including cell, module and rack.

​​​​​​​

T Ü V worked closely with technical experts from China and South Korea to assist AlphaESS to get the certification. After a series of procedures, such as application, data review, factory inspection, testing, etc., we completed the KBIA certification of the whole series of energy storage products in South Korea.

Started from 2019, AlphaESS has made full preparations for entering the Korea market and been for a long time determined to get this certification. The company always concentrates on technology, considering quality and safety as its first priorities. It’s not at all a result of accidents.

Security is AlphaESS’ bottom line.

The effort in eight years finally paid in return.

Background of KBIA of Korea Battery Industry Association

KBIA(Korea Battery Industry Association) is the most influential battery industry association in South Korea. It is jointly established by major battery manufacturers in Korea. The KBIA certification classified as a Korean Industry Association certification. KBIA has developed stringent industry and certification standards by referring to Korean national industrial standards and international IEC / ISO standards. KBIA standard tests must be passed to gain the certificate.
In December 2018, KBIA issued the latest version of certification standard sps-ckbia-10104-03-7312, replacing the two old versions which include kbia-10104-01 and kbia-10104-02. In this update, safety test requirements (kbia-10104-01) and performance test requirements (kbia-10104-02) are merged into one standard.
PHUKET: Deputy Minister of Tourism and Sports Napintorn Srisunpang this week inspected the Sakun.C Innovation Co Ltd boatbuilding factory in Suphan Buri where electric passenger boats are under construction for launch in Phuket, which will be the first province in the country to use electric-powered boats for marine passenger transport to nearby islands.

1600590241 1 org

 
Deputy Minister of Tourism and Sports Napintorn Srisunpang this week inspected the Sakun.C Innovation Co Ltd boatbuilding factory in Suphan Buri, where the country’s first electric passenger boats are under construction for launch in Phuket. Photo: Ministry of Tourism and Sports
The inspection delegation, on Wednesday (Sept 16),  was welcomed by the company’s managing director and other company employees, reported the Ministry of Tourism and Sports (MoTS).
 
The boats being built by Sakun.C are the first electric passenger boats to be registered by the  Marine Department national headquarters in Bangkok, where all boat designs must be approved and registered, said the MoTS report.
Marine Dept Chief Wittaya Yamuang last month announced that Phuket will be the first province in Thailand where electric boats will be used.
In that announcement, Mr Wittaya explained that Sakun.C Innovation Co Ltd and Phuket Patri Tour Group Co Ltd, which operates Ao Por Pier under a concession granted by the Marine Dept, will together launch the electric passenger boats under the name “Banpu Next e-Ferry”, reported Thai business news portal Thansettakij.
 The move is to support green tourism, Mr Wittaya said.
“At this stage, the boat is still under the testing process and will be ready to serve Phuket people as soon as the tests have concluded,” he added. 
Phuket Property
 
“The cost of producing this boat is quite low, as its whole body is made of aluminum. The boat fares will not be expensive, and they could even be lower [than initially estimated] if the price of batteries fall in the future,” Mr Wittaya noted.
“As planned, 30 of these boats will start providing services next year. The number of electric boats will increase to 200 within four years, and the [ferry] services provided will cover Andaman coast provinces within five years,” he said.
“We are also preparing to develop new tourist routes in the south of Thailand, including Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga, as new routes for tourism. After these new ferry routes have been developed, we will expand the routes to include from Krabi to Trang. The project is expected to start by the end of 2020,” Mr Wittaya explained.
“The second version of the electric boats will include solar panels, and these are expected to be produced in the coming year,” he said.
Phuket Marine Office Director Wiwat Chitchertwong told The Phuket News this week, “At this stage, I cannot say when the boats will start operating, as the project has been affected by global pandemic crisis.
“However, we will hold a press conference about these boats next month,” he added.
 

JA Solar launches 800 W solar panel

The 14th SNEC photovoltaic exhibition and conference held in Shanghai this week set the stage for the presentation of the most powerful solar panels on the global PV market. The Chinese pv magazine team was there and has reviewed of all of them.

JA Solar

Chinese manufacturer JA Solar unveiled what is thus far the world’s biggest and most powerful panel with an 810 W model. Called Jumbo, the panel has quadruple layouts of 47 cells and dimensions of 2,220 by 1,757mm. This panel utilizes a triple-cut cell design with 11 busbars on 210mm wafers. JA puts the maximum power output at 800 W. The module is not yet in mass production.

JA Solar launched a new 525 W+ panel in May.

Tongwei

China’s largest cell manufacturer, Tongwei, unveiled its G12 module series with a power output ranging from 760 to 780 W. The series is also based on a 210mm wafer and multi-busbar (MBB) technology. Measuring 2,357mm by 1,612mm, it weighs 39kg. With MBB technology, Tongwei said the panel would reduce BOS and LCOE for investors and operators. The G12 series is likewise not yet in mass production.

Trina

Trina Solar presented a 660 W version of the Devex module. Trina said the new product had the same features and specifications as the Vertex 600 W panels it launched in mid-July, but with systematic optimization. The panel is based on 210mm wafers, MBB technology and high-density interconnection.

Trina last month formed the 600 W+ Photovoltaic Open Innovation Ecological Alliance with the aim of producing the next level of ultra-powerful modules.

More panels

Overall, 20 module manufacturers launched new module products with a power output of over 500 W at SNEC. The list includes:

Jolywood, 615 W

Risen Solar, 615 W

JinkoSolar, 610 W

Suntech, 605 W

Haitai, 600 W

Talesun, 590 W

CSI, 590 W

Eging PV, 545 W

Longi, 540 W

Seraphim, 530 W

 

India's Largest Building Integrated Vertical Solar System & The Road Ahead

July 11th, 2020 by  


Building energy consumption accounts for more than a third of India's total energy consumption. Add to this the fact that more than 70% of the buildings that will stand in India in 2030 are yet to be built. Clearly, making buildings energy efficient, as well as local producers of clean energy, is a priority for the country.

With the falling prices of renewable energy it is now easier than ever to increase clean energy consumption in buildings. However, beyond the initial low hanging fruit (rooftop solar!), the time is right to start venturing into new spaces for increasing onsite clean energy generation.

With the buildings growing vertically in almost all major cities, it is but natural to imagine the growth of solar on this vertical plane!

To be fair, vertical installation of solar PV on buildings has been demonstrated as a technically feasible option for some time now. But with the falling of solar PV prices, this application is seeing a new spurt of growth.

BIPV, as many of you avid readers would know, is an integration of solar PV system into a building's envelope. Apart from serving as a 'skin' to the building, the solar modules can also generate clean power in the process.

With a market share of approximately 1% in the global solar PV market, BIPV is still a niche application. A few years back, the EU-funded PVSites project had estimated that by 2022, BIPV will account for around 13% of the total PV market.

India's Largest BIPV System

In 2019, U-Solar Clean Energy Solutions Pvt. Ltd. installed India's largest building integrated vertical solar PV system at a data center in Mumbai. The system, with a capacity of about 1 MW, has been installed by integrating solar panels on all four walls of the facility, covering over 5000 square feet of facade area.

India's largest BIPV system in Mumbai (Photo credit: U-Solar)

 

India's largest BIPV system in Mumbai — Photo credit: U-Solar

R. Harinarayan, Founder and CEO of U-Solar, shared over an email that,

"By replacing the glass used in the facade with photovoltaic modules we have created a solar power plant on the building structure while the inverter and other components are housed inside the building. As the facility uses electricity 24/7, the BIPV solar plant offsets a part of the carbon emission due to their dependence on fossil fuel based grid electricity – an initiative taken by the data centre to meet their sustainability goals".

Since this was an existing building, the project came with its own set of challenges.

It called for the use of custom designed aluminum rails as the module mounting structure. Frameless panels were used on the facade. The panels were connected as they were placed on the structure, and electrical work and construction took place simultaneously for timely delivery.

Since the building was already constructed, this was a constraint on the solar energy that could be harnessed. To partially address this issue, power optimizers have been used on each panel.

Power optimizers increase energy output from PV systems by constantly tracking the maximum power point (MPPT) of each module individually. They can also monitor the performance of each module.

In terms of environmental benefits, U-Solar estimates the solar power system will help provide a CO2 emissions reduction equivalent to almost 7000 trees per year.

Advantages Of The Vertical Route

There has been a continued increase in the number of real estate projects opting for green certifications – both LEED and India's own GRIHA rating systems. This has slowly but steadily opened up a larger market for local energy generation as well as energy efficiency.

Most of the time, however, the roof available for installing conventional rooftop solar systems is quite limited in tall buildings as most of it is used for other purposes as well. The building facade, on the other hand, can provide a much larger space which is otherwise quite unusable for anything else.

This provides an opportunity to replace the conventional glass used in commercial buildings with solar panels which can generate power, thereby reducing its energy footprint in addition to providing a positive ROI on the additional investment.

The panels themselves can act quite like thermal insulation by blocking the sun and thus also reducing the power consumption of the air conditioning system.

Performance Of BIPV Systems

In the case of vertical BIPV systems, a reduced output should be expected as all the panels can not be placed in the optimal direction from a power generation point of view.

The table below shows the output for a small 1 kW system if it were to be installed in different orientations in Delhi (U-Solar's project location is Mumbai though).

I should add that I did not really consider any special adjustments and that the output tabulated below is purely on the basis of orientation. There might be other factors such as partial shadow, temperature effects etc. that may come into play.

Solar panel's tilt relative to the horizontal Direction of the solar panel Annual output for a 1kW DC solar system (kWh/year, in Delhi) Output relative to highest generation (%)
Vertical North 391 27
Vertical East 630 44
Vertical South 871 60
Vertical West 795 55
Average of all four vertical systems 672 47
Horizontal 1312 91
Latitude South 1442 100

Clearly, the power output is reduced to almost half as a result of the orientation. But what you need to realize is that vertical BIPV really opens up the quantum of local energy generation, and a decision on the viability should be done after evaluating the system's return on investment (ROI).

For example, in case of U-Solar's data center project in Mumbai, the facades provide a total area of at least 7-8 times of that available on the roof. And this by the way, is assuming all the roof is empty. Which it is not.

Here's a look at the actual solar power generation at the site of U-Solar's installation.

BIPV system electricity generation data (Source: U-Solar)

 

BIPV system electricity generation data from U-Solar

Does The ROI Work Out?

R. Harinarayan, Founder and CEO, U-Solar

 

R. Harinarayan, Founder and CEO, U-Solar

As per Mr. Harinarayan, interestingly, the actual generation at U-Solar's project site is higher than the simulated estimated generation.

Since this is a first of its kind system for the company, they have been engrossed in evaluating the performance through remote monitoring and intervene in case of deviations from the normal power generation. The learnings will be useful in replicating similar systems.

He added, however, that the output is expected to stabilize closer to the simulated estimation as the modules degrade over time.

Now, the initial cost of BIPV is offset in part due to savings from the reduction in conventional building materials and labor that would have normally been used. Once the solar power system is in operation, there are additional savings from the electricity generated.

The ROI in a BIPV project would be calculated on the incremental investment over what the glass facade itself would cost.

Typically, the payback period for a solar power plant is calculated based on the generation of the BIPV system over 25 years. If you consider the life of the building as 50-100 years, clearly this is significantly less, and perhaps the BIPV system may need several replacements. But that by itself shouldn't be an issue.

The payback of a typical rooftop solar system in India is 3-4 years for commercial consumers. Going just by the power generation from a BIPV system, which is about half of a rooftop solar system, the payback should be around 8-9 years.

Now that might be true for an existing building, but for one still on the drawing table, the financial viability would be analyzed by reducing the expected cost of a conventional glass facade.

As per my rough estimates, for the same coverage area, the replaced glass (depending of course on a lot of factors) could cost almost 30% to 50% of the solar modules used to replace them.

Solar panels account for about 60% of the solar system's cost, so the savings on the glass cost alone could shave off at least 20% of the payback period. And don't forget that larger systems are easier to finance.

To arrive at a complete picture, you would also look into the difference in installation costs, difference in operation & maintenance expenditure, savings from the HVAC load reduction, and savings from the electricity generated from the solar panels.

The Issue of Customization

There are usually two types of glass facade in buildings, view/vision glass (transparent) and spandrel glass (opaque). While progress is being made on 'see through' solar PV, for now it is easier (read: cost-effective) to replace spandrel glass as the PV modules do not have to be customized for passage of light. And are hence relatively cheaper.

BIPV system Source: U-Solar

 

Another view of the BIPV project in Mumbai

As you know, a rooftop solar system can be installed at any stage, i.e. if the building is in planning, construction, or built stage.

For a BIPV system, however, the costs change radically when considering new projects vs existing buildings due to the duplication of several costs. Additionally, by working with the building developers at the planning stage, BIPV designers can suggest the optimum building orientation to maximize electricity generation from the integrated solar plant.

Conclusion

BIPV technology can be adapted to any building that requires a glass facade, including but not limited to skyscrapers, malls, apartments, modern homes, and more. U-Solar is working with apartment developers, mall owners, and other datacenters at the design phase to incorporate BIPV in existing as well as new projects.

Compared to the overall solar PV market, BIPV is still a niche solution.

However, newer technologies entering the market are already increasing the customization options, such as modules that have colored glass or wafers as well as modules that allow visible light to pass through. These can accelerate the adoption of BIPV systems by improving the building's aesthetics.

Mr. Harinarayan shared that in order to enable the future growth of the BIPV market, "the key would be to open up larger demand by on-boarding more developers, and hence better economics across the sector."

I for one think that the discussion on costs is a moot point. A lesson we repeatedly learn on technology costs is that it is simply dependent on scale! Given that building energy is a huge chunk of the demand pie, all we need to reason out is if BIPV is worth doing at large scale.

This post has been published by cleantechnica

Minister seeks solar rooftop revisions

More households urged to join scheme

Solar rooftop panels at Banpu Plc in Bangkok. The government wants to encourage more household rooftop panels.Solar rooftop panels at Banpu Plc in Bangkok. The government wants to encourage more household rooftop panels.

Energy Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong has demanded a revision of conditions for the solar rooftop project within two months to encourage more households to produce and sell power to the state grid.

He gave the order on Monday after discussing obstacles to the project, especially the unattractive sale prices of photovoltaic (PV) electricity, with former Bangkok senator and outspoken activist Rosana Tositrakul, who leads energy advocacy group Thai Energy Reform.

Thailand has allowed people to jointly generate electricity from solar energy since 2013, but there was little interest. The main problem is the power tariff included in the price is not high enough, said Mr Sontirat.

He said the project aims to produce 50 megawatts of electricity per year over the next five years.

The government earlier reduced its plan for maximum capacity of 100MW to 50MW over the long term, but has seen only a small group of people offering to produce a combined 1.8MW.

Mr Sontirat stressed the need to adjust conditions, making the project more attractive to households. He wants energy officials to jointly talk with Thai Energy Reform and come up with a better version by August.

According to the ministry, people who join the project are allowed to produce electricity for daily use and can sell the rest to the state grid at 1.68 baht per kilowatt-hour (unit).

It is not just the price that is a problem, Ms Rosana said, urging officials to deal with tax issues and find a better way to support people who want to join the project. She suggested the ministry use a "net metering system", which is designed to facilitate electricity sales with the government.

Some 95% of Thailand's solar energy is produced from ground-based solar farms. Solar panels installed on house roofs for consumption and sale are widely popular in Bangkok, as well as various production plants in the Eastern Economic Corridor, but they have found the electricity price is too low, said Ms Rosana.

The solar PV project for households aligns with the national power development plan (PDP) from 2018 to 2037. Under the PDP, solar power is projected to reach 12,725MW by 2037.

This post has been published by Bangkok Post

From down and out to the 'Tesla of Thailand' 

Somphote Ahunai talks about how one bad investment turned a millionaire into a billionaire and sparked Energy Absolute

On the surface, Somphote Ahunai, one of Thailand's few self-made billionaires, is easily compared to Elon Musk -- the ostentatious, genius Tesla founder, who is as well known for his prophetic futurisms as for his frequent, unbecoming Twitter outbursts.



Mr Somphote has built EA into a SET-listed firm with a market cap exceeding 150 billion baht.


But besides their common business interest in electric vehicles (and the fact that Mr Somphote's business is often referred to as the "Tesla of Thailand"), the rest bears little comparison.


No sports cars. No pop star wife, no eccentric child names and definitely no Twitter account.


A better comparison would be Warren Buffett -- the US billionaire best known not for his keenly prescient investments, but for living in the same house he bought 60 years ago for US$30,000, who eschews the common luxuries of his class, preferring McDonald's and Cherry Coke to caviar and foie gras.


Like Mr Buffett, Mr Somphote, 53, lives simply, in a four-bedroom, 18-million-baht condo in Chamchuri Square that he leases. He wears a suit he bought on sale at Uniqlo and wears no watch. He says he technically owns a Rolex but thinks he lost it. (It was a gift from a friend.)


Mr Somphote, the founder and chief executive of renewable energy/electric vehicle/battery firm Energy Absolute (EA), still eats street food and rides the MRT.


When Mr Somphote sits around a table talking to his workers, it's hard to tell who is the billionaire mastermind behind one of Thailand's most promising "S-curve" companies and whose job it is to pour the tea.


It all oozes unobtrusiveness. Even his explanations for how he came upon his immense fortune are caked in reluctance.


Mr Somphote had wanted to retire at 36 as a millionaire, having calculated that the money he made as a financier and stockbroker was more than he could ever spend with his lifestyle, even after educating his children overseas.


But one bad investment made him a billionaire.


"It was an accident," Mr Somphote says. "I went to my parents and said I wanted to retire, but they would tell me you have a happy life, but how about brother and sister? You need to take care of them."


So what followed, by his telling, is that he was suckered into buying a biodiesel factory as one last big investment before he could finally take it easy.


The factory turned out to be unprofitable; he had bought it at a high price because he was unfamiliar with the industry. But because he had family investing in the project, he couldn't see it fail.


"I had a background in electrical engineering, but I knew nothing about mechanical and chemical engineering," Mr Somphote says. "I had to start reading books, learn it all from scratch, then build the factory from scratch.


"So that's my accident. I didn't go out to buy a factory, somebody found me. Then because I wanted to do something for other people, I got something even bigger in return."


Mr Somphote expanded the company beyond the failing biodiesel factory, diversifying it into wind and solar energy and building it into SET-listed EA with a current market capitalisation of over 150 billion baht, his 23.5% stake in the company anointing him with billionaire status -- not that it much changed the quality of his suits.

Mr Somphote and his three children at Stonehenge.

And his next venture will prove his biggest and riskiest yet.

To lay the infrastructure for electric vehicles in Thailand, Mr Somphote is building a 100-billion-baht lithium-ion battery gigafactory in Chachoengsao. The company also has a deal with 7-Eleven to install charging ports, while unveiling a line of EVs. In the end it will create a national end-to-end EV infrastructure in which EA makes the cars, the batteries and the charging ports that run partly on electricity generated at EA's various renewable energy plants.

Mr Somphote has become the unlikely saviour of Thailand's high-tech 4.0 ambitions at a time when foreign car makers are fleeing the country or cutting production, startups are flailing from a lack of funding, and the nation faces the worst financial crisis in a generation.

Now everything is riding on the new factory, including his financial future and, more importantly, prospects of early retirement.

But it's hard to believe that this was just an accident of fortune. No one just trips on his shoelaces to become a tycoon, especially not in this industry. It takes planning, tenacity, cut-throat business sensibilities.

Throughout Mr Somphote's life, these contradictory forces live inside him, underneath the cheap suits and self-effacing demeanour, making him the businessman he is today.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Growing up, Mr Somphote was not raised in the highly connected, appearance-conscious world of the Thai elite, but in northern Bangkok to a middle-class family. His father bounced between occupations, mostly buying and selling goods wholesale, while his mother worked in and later owned a beauty parlour.

During childhood, he adopted an early love of computers, tooling around on circuit boards and learning programming languages on the Apple II.

His parents, natural-born hustlers, managed to acquire enough credit through non-traditional channels, accumulating over a hundred friends and neighbours as shareholders, to build a commercial hotel on land leased from the Crown Property Bureau that was used primarily by the US military.

The investment paid off, and by the time Mr Somphote was of age, his parents had enough money to send him to school overseas, where he earned a master's degree in finance at the University of Pittsburgh.

He had initially pursued electrical engineering, getting a bachelor's in the subject at Chulalongkorn University. But he switched to finance for practical reasons, a choice that proved effective at building wealth and draining happiness.

For Mr Somphote's foray into the financial world proved incredibly volatile, as the young up-and-comer found unparalleled success and crushing failures, all while upsetting the elite establishment that saw him as a dangerous disrupter to the nepotistic social order of the finance sector.

He entered the workforce in Thailand at a time when talent was short and a Western education was an invaluable asset. His first job was as a financial analyst at WTK Group, a top brokerage firm in Asean, earning 25,000 baht per month (he says his salary increased 200% per year). He quickly began to amass sizeable wealth, despite often being the youngest person in the room and without a recognisable family name.

But after his superiors forced him to fire his staff, he wanted out of the company and more so to become his own boss.

RISE AND FALL

The 1997 financial crisis proved a lucrative opportunity for Mr Somphote. While many brokerage firms were collapsing in the country, he raised 500 million baht to bid on the Thai subsidiary of a Taiwanese firm, Yuanta Securities.

"Everyone was asking, 'Who's this guy? Who's his father? Where are his connections? Where did he come from?' Suddenly I came out of nowhere to be managing director," he recalls.

As head of Yuanta Thailand, he quickly grew the firm amid the chaos of a collapsed economy, making his staff work from morning to midnight without overtime. His employees brought their spouses into the firm to pick up extra work, building the company into a powerhouse and irking the moneyed establishment along the way.

"In that time I was more extreme than today," Mr Somphote says. "I was not mature and came out of a very competitive environment in the US."

Things were going well. But a little too well, according to the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET). Mr Somphote had increased trading volume of the company by 10 times and saw unprecedented profits, while other firms struggled with solvency.

He attributes the success to hard work and his autodidact nature of accumulating the necessary knowledge to stay ahead of competitors and become the leading brokerage firm with a 25% market share.

But that did not save him from being forced out of the industry.

In 2001, the SET suspended Yuanta Thailand's trading activities after an investigation into "unusual" movements of shares in BankThai.

He was forced out of the industry by what he calls a "technical blacklist". His roughly 200 million baht in stock value disappeared overnight and he was left with nothing.

Despite being exonerated by the Securities and Exchange Commission a few months later, with no evidence found of market manipulation, his life was still ruined and his wife left him at the advice of a fortune teller.

"Society blamed me as a manipulator without evidence," Mr Somphote says. "I watched television every day saying things about me that were not true. People in the industry I called would not talk to me because they did not want to be associated with my name. They said if I came back the industry would have turbulence again, so the easier way was to have no me."

This brought him to the literal edge. Some time after the blacklisting, he stood borderline penniless on the balcony of his condo, considering jumping as his only way out. But the tears of his three-month-old daughter from the next room quelled the suicidal ideations, and he stepped down, determined to start over.

THE PHOENIX

Without even the money to buy a can of baby formula, he took a job for 25,000 baht a month, the same salary as his first job out of university. Eventually his wife returned, and so did the money. He was able to slowly invest and regrow his fortune. As an independent investor, he eventually started earning 50-100 million baht a year. By the time he was 36, he was worth about 1 billion baht.

And from there he says he was ready for retirement.

But he didn't retire, and at that point he began his life's greatest work, putting in the same effort as he had into finance, only now for something he was actually passionate about.

A business profile is not the place to call someone a liar; but clearly something drives Mr Somphote besides familial obligations and dumb luck, and all the work in front of him is not just an obstacle towards retirement and a happy life. This is a man who has taken every opportunity in life to grow small amounts of baht or established companies into massive fortunes and powerhouses of industry. Behind his unassuming sheen is a truly visionary Thai iconoclast, but you would never hear that from his own mouth.

"If I can make this company sustainable to run on its own, I am willing to leave," Mr Somphote says. "But I cannot stay at home; I have to do something like play sports or music. Or start a charity to help society. Or maybe I can train a new guy, and he can become a billionaire."

This post has been published by Bangkok Post

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