28 May 2014


European inverter manufacturers remain competitive with Asian counterparts






How is Sputnik doing? What are your latest developments and expansion plans? And which markets have your focus?
Our main focus is on the European and the USA PV markets. The US has a big potential to expand and we want to be part of that. We have a local R&D team in Atlanta, that knows the market and its needs.
I am also convinced that the medium and long-terms potential in Europe is enormous even though there is a market slowdown at the moment. Thanks to the attractive electricity production prices, photovoltaic power is developing into a real alternative to conventional forms of energy production. Decentralized electricity production by means of PV is already a commercially lucrative solution for commercial or industrial buildings using their own electricity in Germany, Italy and other locations. This will be the case more and more in the future. Added to this is the positive public attitude towards a technology that is CO2-neutral, that makes us independent from fossil fuels (and thereby geopolitically independent), that doesn't produce dangerous waste and strengthens the local economy.
We are also present in Chile and Australia, the markets there are interesting and expanding as well.
What do you consider to be your biggest success in the last 5 years? And what were the most important lessons learnt?
The PV market depends a lot on policy and policy framework, which the PV branch can hardly influence. In the last 5 years the PV market has had a lot of up and downs and the medium- and long-term planning were not always easy. But every change can be a chance! We are still on the market and competitive and that’s because our products correspond to the different market needs and we have a good market access, but also because we have a good spirit in our company and the employees stand behind the company in good and bad times.

What do you see as the biggest challenge your organization will face?
The PV market is very volatile and ever-changing, so we have to keep reacting fast, remain flexible and adapt our products to the long-term market needs.
What do you see as the key markets for solar energy in the future? And how will you position yourself in these markets?
One of the key markets is the USA. The solar market there has experienced record-breaking growths in the last few years and is the fastest growing energy source in the U.S. We launched ourselves into the market one year ago and have already conquered a very good position, that we are aiming to expand.
We are also investing in the markets in Europe. We have expanded distribution in Germany, Italy, UK, Switzerland, Benelux and France significantly.

Personally, I am thrilled that our home market came to life three years ago and that the Swiss market has increased a lot, relative to its size. Thanks to a high market share in our home country, Switzerland represents a substantial proportion of our sales despite the strong competition we are facing there. Therefore I see our high market share in Switzerland as a confirmation of our high competitiveness.
The UK is another market where we're experiencing successful growth. In the first quarter, we got off to an ideal start with major projects with central inverters at over 65 MW. On top of this, we won over several important PV distributors in the UK, who now supply our string inverters in the strong residential and small commercial segments.
Last year we were also able to secure a substantial market share in France. We plan to expand this further in 2014.
Although, as I already mentioned, the markets in Germany and Italy are shrinking, we still think they have a lot of potential and we want to develop our market position there as well.
Again, we also see Australia and Chile as markets with a high potential.

Of course we are aware, that the Asian market is growing very fast, but with all the Asian competitors it is very difficult for western companies to enter these markets...

We see growing competition from Asian inverter manufacturers. Several big 'western' inverter manufacturers seem to be having a hard time dealing with that. What is your strategy to cope with these challenges?
In order to make our products available via the most important sales channels, we are also becoming more active in trading. We are, however, also investing in products and services for the European markets. The new HT and TP inverters are tailored to Europe, as are the P-Battery storage solution and the load management system. We have set up SolarMax Servicepoint, a new after-sales organisation in Germany, in order to generate additional value for the customers.

Do you foresee developments coming to the inverter business that could be similar to what happened in the module market these past years? Developments including consolidation and struggling European industry players...
I believe that you can not directly compare the two businesses. The production of modules needs very specific machines that are very expensive to purchase. The manufacturing of inverters is based on standard electronics, which reduces the investment costs and makes the production process competitive with Asian production. Of course, we should not underestimate the Asian inverter manufacturer. But as long as its after-sales service is so weak, I see no big threat. In addition, the requirements of grid network integration in countries with a lot of PV, such as Germany and Italy continue to rise. The inverter is the link and can perform these new functions. The required guidelines are developed continuously and the inverter manufacturer must be sure that their products comply with all country-specific requirements. If this is not the case, then the new PV plant can not be connected to the grid. It would be much too risky for dealers and installers to sell such devices. As a company with lots of experience with these requirements, guidelines and developments, we have an advantage.

What are the most important product developments you see in the near future? For instance; how will big data, energy storage and smart grid developments impact the inverter of the future? Will an inverter look the same 5 years from now?
When I started the business, more than 20 years ago, the only expectations of inverters were to invert DC to AC and to give a sign if the inverter was working or not.
Today smart grid and self-consumption are the two biggest topics for PV energy and the inverter makes the difference. Intelligent energy management systems are required, storage becomes more and more important and the plant has to be able to be monitored from anywhere and so on.
Our P series for residential plants have already integrated an intelligent energy management system and the inverters are battery ready so that the customer can invest in a storage system at any time. At the beginning of next year, we will launch the first P-Battery systems, consisting of a SolarMax P series, including upgrade kit, an energy management system or energy storage device.
From the beginning it has been our vision to support the breakthrough of PV with our inverter technology and system simplification.
What will the solar energy market look like 5 years from now? And what will be the major changes compared to the global market today?
The two fastest growing market regions are the USA and Asia, China and Japan in particular. The two main European markets, Germany and Italy, will shrink even further in 2014. This will exacerbate the fight for survival. On the current market, you can sometimes find very low pricing and additional services (e.g. extended warranty coverage) which are no longer reconcilable with any reasonable kind of cost calculation. Based on this situation, we now also see a market consolidation among inverter manufacturers. The total market volume in Europe, at 10 GW, will once again be below that of the previous year. However, the absolute value still shows that the market potential is high. Germany, the UK, Italy and France continue to be among the ten most important PV markets worldwide.

Where do you want Sputnik to be in five years from now? What do you want to achieve?
We are intent on staying an important player in the inverter business. Moreover, we will stick to the promises we have made to our customers for over 20 years already. SolarMax means high swiss quality , innovative technology and the best after-sales . With this mission I am convinced we will stay competitive in the global PV market.





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