A strong developer of solar projects, Canadian Solar also dominates solar panel manufacturing. Constantly vying for the top global manufacturing spot with Hanwha Q CELLS, JA Solar, JinkoSolar and Trina Solar, Canadian Solar ranked third in 2016 with 5.1 GW of solar panels produced. Solar Power World spoke with Vincent Ambrose, Canadian Solar’s general manager for North America, about the company’s manufacturing past and new products coming to market in 2017. An extended version of this interview–including more on Canadian Solar’s non-module product offerings and its development and O&M plans–can be listened to via our Solar Speaks podcast.
Give a little background on Canadian Solar’s manufacturing history.
We were founded in 2001 by Shawn Qu, our current president. Our first product line was a solar trickle-charger used for the automotive industry, specifically the Audi group. Their batteries were dying during transition from Europe to the U.S. and also sitting on auto lots. We came up with a unique trickle-charger that attached to the window, plugged into the optimized detector motherboard connection and kept the battery trickle-charged so the power electronics were never compromised and the car was always ready to turn over on a moment’s notice.
It was really a customer-driven problem and we came up with a product solution. That’s been the hallmark of Canadian Solar. We like to listen to our customers’ needs and challenges and provide them with solutions.
What’s a basic overview of the solar panels you have on the market now?
Our 60-cell format product is geared toward residential applications. We have PERC technology embedded in some of our products. We have both a black-on-black and a black-on-white offering. And like Henry Ford used to say, as far as our frame colors are concerned, you can have it in any color you want, so long as it’s black. Simple on our end, but the market told us a long time ago that on residential applications, [people want] a black frame regardless.
On the 72-cell side, our commercial/utility-scale product, we use an aluminum frame backbar that splits down the back of the frame and provides additional support to the module in static and dynamic loads. We use a thinner glass but use the backbar for additional stability. It works well in applications with high wind loads.
IHS Markit’s PV Module Customer Insight Survey found Canadian Solar to be the most purchased and recommended brand of solar modules in 2016. How do you plan to keep this momentum?
We are all extremely proud that we have achieved this level of brand-endearment as measured by IHS. In our industry, our product is not technologically much different than other products. Polycrystalline technology has been around since the 1950s. The technology is relatively mature at this point, and the products tend to be ubiquitous. What we find important with our customers is the service around the sale. Obviously you have to come to market with a product that is top-tier, has the performance and the reliability. I think Canadian Solar has done a great job at building a brand and building reliability.
There is always going to be a lower price leader, but when you have an organization like ours that puts the time into R&D and the service around the sale, we think that’s what keeps our customers and articulates into a No. 1 brand position in the market.
How do we keep the momentum going? We keep working, one customer at a time, one sale at a time, one deal at a time, to ensure our customers have the highest level of product and service.
What are you working on in R&D?
We’re constantly striving to have the highest efficiency at the most rational valued price. One of the exciting things we’ll be rolling out in the near future is a split-cell technology. We’re taking both our 72- and 60-cell products to split-cell technology. As you see module efficiencies increase and the watt per panel increase, you’re starting to see we’re hitting a critical mass of operating temperatures. It’s important that these modules sit out in the field for 25 years going through thermal cycling every day. A high temperature coefficient can really cause challenges, and we’re a long-term player in the space so this is important to us. This split-cell technology lowers operating temperatures of the modules while increasing efficiency and power output. It’s a win-win for us and our customers.
What’s the next advancement for solar panels?
I think the split-cell for Canadian Solar is definitely the more exciting technology that we’re going to roll out in the short term. Longer term, we’re going to see more bifacial products. The challenge with bifacial has always been the unpredictability of the power output because it’s dependent upon the substrate behind the modules—a white commercial roof, a dark comp shingle, grass, gravel. It’s hard to model what the module is going to produce. The financing community is coming around on bifacial and the cost structure is coming down. We’ll be hearing more about that technology in the coming two or three years.