Solar Frontier, the vertically integrated thin-film PV manufacturer and project developer headquartered in Japan, has opened an office in London aimed at steering its activities in the currently-buoyant UK market.

Through its subsidiary, Solar Frontier Europe, the company aims to address the residential, commercial rooftop and utility-scale sectors of Britain’s PV industry. According to Solar Intelligence, the market analysis and tracking service launched by Solar Power Portal's publisher Solar Media, the UK installed over 2.5GW of ground mount PV in the first quarter of this year alone.

The company has already been involved with some UK projects since 2012, including collaborating with Belectric on a 16.5MW utility-scale project in 2014. More recently, a partnership with New Energy for the World (NEW), a German developer, led to Solar Frontier acquiring around 100MW of projects across 20 sites, each of up to 5MW generation capacity.

While the UK PV industry’s success has meant support for large-scale solar projects of over 5MW has all but ended, projects of up to 5MW can still get government support, meaning the mid-sized projects are springing up around Britain. Prior to the support for larger projects being cut in March this year, Solar Frontier also completed a 7.15MW UK solar farm with New Energy for the World.

In an interview at Intersolar Europe last month, Atsuhiko Hirano, CEO of the Japan-based parent company said that Solar Frontier truly wanted to “go global” and had been on this course for just over a year.

“We said one of the keys to a global strategy is to go downstream, in all market segments starting from residential to commercial rooftop and also to the utility sector.”

In the US, the company has acquired a significant project pipeline through the acquisition of developer Gestamp Solar. Hirano said that once Gestamp’s pipeline was bought, Solar Frontier became increasingly interested in also developing the projects too and carried over this strategy to its UK deal with New Energy for the World.

“In the European sector too we’d been looking for an opportunity for project development and we were happy to come across NEW, which had a very good, attractive pipeline of projects in the UK,” Hirano said.

At a recent visit to a PV industry event in Tokyo, one industry source told Solar Power Portal that he expected Japan’s PV industry players, which have gained a great deal of experience of project construction and development since the FiT was introduced in 2012, to want to use that experience in other markets. Hirano said that while it was true Japanese companies had gained many megawatts of project-related experience since July 2012 and might want to take that to other markets, for Solar Frontier the biggest lesson learned was the importance of integrating into new markets through appropriate partnerships and team-building.

“We are not simply bringing in the team that we developed in Japan as the winning team to do project development in the UK or in the US. Our Partnership with NEW has led us to form a new consortium which is the best fit for the UK. We are now bringing in investors, who will be our exit partners on projects. We are forming consortia with EPCs, banking institutions,” Hirano said.

“We have our EPC partners to do projects in the UK. Similarly in the US, the strength brought in by the deal was of course the pipeline itself but also the team from Gestamp America, joined us to do the execution but also project development.

“We have a good team in Japan but the knowledge we gained through that is that it’s having a strong team is what’s most important.”

Simplicity key to unlocking “huge potential” of commercial rooftops

The company will also sell residential ‘bundled’ kits that include everything from solar array to power electronics, monitoring and also energy storage batteries in some markets. PV kits providing an entire household system from one provider are fairly common in Japan’s domestic solar market.

“In Japan, we already sell the system solution [kit] but in Europe it will be aimed at the post-FiT market, whereas in Japan the system is sold into the FiT market,” Hirano said, explaining that the simplicity of the value proposition was one of the main selling points of PV kits.

Hirano also told Solar Power Portal that similarly easy-to-understand value propositions for end customers might be key to unlocking the “huge potential” Solar Frontier saw in the commercial rooftop sector in the UK. In 2014, Greg Barker, the UK politician who at the time was in charge of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) had promised to put “rocket boosters” under the commercial rooftop sector, but this expected proliferation of businesses hosting PV on their roofs has not yet materialised.

Solar Frontier until recently offered a commercial offering that “was mainly targeted for commercial rooftops with the idea that we would be tailor-making systems by understanding the energy consumption of each commercial rooftop user and making a comprehensive solution,” Hirano said.

“But it became quite difficult to really give a clear-cut solution and it often became too complicated for those commercial rooftop owners to make a judgement. We came up with a much simpler offer for the commercial rooftops.”

Solar Frontier now offers commercial rooftop bundles in 33kW or 22kW combinations.

“For the commercial rooftop owner, they only have to provide the size of the roof and then it’s just a question of matching how many 33kW or 22kW sets they want to match their energy consumption.

“It’s a much simpler offer that we make and we hope that by making it simple there’s huge potential we can open up in commercial rooftops.”  

Finally, specific to the new territory, Hirano also said that he believed thin-film solar could be well suited for the UK, which often has low light conditions and relatively low solar irradiance levels.