Sustainability Leaders Series: Phoenix Solar’s Christophe Inglin

Managing director of Phoenix Solar Singapore, Christophe Inglin

You could say Christophe Inglin is one of Singapore’s solar pioneers. When he co-founded Phoenix Solar in 2006, the industry was in its infancy and the going was tough. But he stayed the course and today, Phoenix Solar in Singapore is the regional headquarters for its parent company, Phoenix Solar AG, and behind major photovoltaic (PV) projects in Asia. 

Prior to that, Inglin was managing director of Shell Solar for a decade, where he worked extensively throughout the Asia-Pacific region and was instrumental in implementing grid-connected solar electricity projects. He is known widely as a PV expert and speaks frequently at events, and also chairs the Renewable Energy Committee at the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore (SEAS).

He speaks to Eco-Business about the burgeoning solar sector and what makes it tick. 

Phoenix Solar has been in Singapore since October 2006, when the solar industry was a fledgling one. What were some obstacles that you faced and how did you overcome them?

The biggest obstacle was the lack of demand for solar PV. Back in 2007 the price was too high for anyone to justify purchasing a grid-connected PV system based on commercial returns alone, and there were no feed in tariffs or similar incentives in Singapore. We pretty much starved for our first two years, burning through our paid-up capital, until the Singapore market spluttered to life in 2009 on the back of two key government initiatives:

The first was the Building & Construction Authority’s (BCA) Green Mark Manager course, to train the construction sector in green building techniques. The four-day course, which started in late 2007, included a session on photovoltaics.

The second was the Economic Development Board’s (EDB) Solar Capability Scheme (SCS), which encouraged building developers to add PV to their projects by awarding a grant to qualifying projects. One of its criteria was that the building must meet BCA’s Green Mark Gold standard. This was later revised to the Gold Plus. The SCS grant had a surprisingly large impact, considering that even after a 30 per cent grant, the early projects still did not generate commercial returns on electricity savings alone.

But other soft factors also played their part. Coupled with SCS awards, EDB helped promote early adopters of PV with Solar Pioneer Awards, which gained media coverage for the award winners. Singapore’s media began paying much more attention to clean tech in general and PV in particular. I reckon PV got more coverage in Singapore’s media in 2009 than it had in the previous two decades combined.

In the background, the Energy Market Authority (EMA) updated Singapore’s Code of Practice for electrical installations, to allow PV systems to feed surplus energy back to the power grid and even get paid for it.

Phoenix Solar’s challenge, now that the PV market was sprouting early buds, was to gain the attention of Singapore’s construction sector. We had no previous exposure to the ecosystem of architects, M&E consultants, main contractors and quantity surveyors. So we faced a steep learning curve. For its part, the construction sector knew very little about PV, which many people still confused with solar water heaters.

So we put together several PV training courses, which were held at the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) Singapore Environment Institute, the BCA’s Academy and at the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore (SEAS). Besides helping potential PV users to better understand PV technology, these courses gave us very good exposure to hundreds of construction sector professionals. Whenever any of them wanted to install PV on a building, there was a high chance that they would contact us.

Phoenix has since grown to establish a presence in Asia, with a regional headquarters in Singapore - the first outside Germany. What has made this possible?

When we founded Phoenix Solar as a joint venture with the German parent company, we had a clear mandate to develop business in the Asia Pacific market. Indeed our original business plans hardly considered the Singapore market, which we knew was non-existent in 2007. We favoured the much larger prospects in Korea, which had a feed-in-tariff incentive scheme that generated attractive returns for investors in PV power plants, or solar farms. But we greatly underestimated the difficulties facing foreign companies trying to do business in Korea, and we got nowhere.

Money is the motivating force behind trends towards sustainability. People tend to buy what they perceive offers them the best value, and that often favours cheaper products. In some cases, the public learns the value of paying a higher price for quality and energy efficiency to capture long-term savings from lower electricity bills.

Christophe Inglin

So we reoriented ourselves to the fledgling Singapore and Malaysian markets, where we secured several rooftop PV reference projects, such as Changi Airport’s Budget Terminal, and Malaysia’s Energy Commission Headquarters, or Suruhanjaya Tenaga HQ. But it was not until 2011 and 2012 that we could lay claim to being a regional headquarters, by completing a series of solar farms from 1MW to 10MW in size, in India and Thailand, plus a solar car park shelter in the Philippines.

We succeeded thanks to a combination of solid preparation, global brand name, and seizing any good luck that came our way. Besides honing our team’s skills on rooftop projects in Singapore and Malaysia, we also sent three project managers for 18 to 24 months each to learn on the job at our HQ in Germany, under EDB’s STRAT scheme. Upon their return, we could say with confidence that we had in-house experience with solar farms, which differentiated us from many inexperienced local rivals in the region. It also distinguished us from other global companies who had plenty of experienced project managers in their HQ, but none over here.

We were fortunate that a module manufacturer had faith in our capabilities and invited us to provide turnkey construction services for a solar farm client it was wooing in Thailand. We worked hard to win the contract, and it proved a stepping stone to many more.

In your experience, has the level of awareness on sustainability changed in Asia in the public and private sectors in the past few years? And has this had an impact on the demand for solar products and services in the region?

Singapore’s Green Mark scheme and similar programmes in the region have certainly improved the way buildings are designed and constructed, and driven demand for more energy-efficient products. Rising energy prices have helped wake people up to the good sense of energy-efficient design. And I have noticed a greater awareness of environmental factors affecting quality of life, such as air pollution.

But apart from government policy, money is the motivating force behind trends towards sustainability. People tend to buy what they perceive offers them the best value, and that often favours cheaper products. In some cases such as NEA’s energy efficiency rating scheme, the public learns the value of paying a higher price for quality and energy efficiency to capture long-term savings from lower electricity bills.

With PV, the real driver for growth has been the dramatic drop in prices over the last 3 years, to the point where large rooftop PV systems in Singapore achieve a payback in less than 8 years at today’s electricity tariffs. Contrast that with other countries with very low electricity tariffs, such as Indonesia or Vietnam, where we see very little demand for grid-connected PV.

How does Phoenix practise sustainability in its own business operations?

As a project business, we do not have the same opportunities that a manufacturing company has to reduce resource consumption.

But we practise sustainability in a number of small ways. When we moved into our premises in Little India, we made sure to install four-tick rated air conditioning and energy-saving lights. The light in our rear store room operates on a motion sensor to switch it off when no one is in the room. Several Phoenix Solar staff, including me, cycle to work rather than using cars or taxis. Most of the rest use buses or the MRT.

When it comes to our installations in Singapore, we mostly install locally manufactured PV modules, thereby avoiding CO2 emissions of imports from overseas. But our biggest contribution to sustainability is the business we are in – of designing, installing and maintaining high-quality, long-lasting PV systems.

Lastly, what do you think defines a responsible, sustainable business?

I’ll keep this one very short: to be responsible and sustainable, a business must do more good than harm. Of course, the devil is in the details.

The Sustainability Leaders Series is a weekly interview profiling sustainability leaders in the Asia Pacific region.

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