Enphase CEO: Australian solar market years ahead of USA, ready for energy storage

The CEO of the world’s biggest supplier of solar inverters has described the Australian solar market as having infinite potential, in a global market he predicts will wind up being worth trillions.

Enphase CEO Paul Nahi was in Melbourne last week to check on the progress of the Asia-Pacific arm of the business, which set up bases in Melbourne and Sydney around 18 months ago.

In particular, the California-based “solar-tech” company is working on plans to pilot its break-through energy storage product, the Enphase AC Battery.

Used in conjunction with the company’s cloud-based Enphase Energy Management System, the compact modular plug-and-play energy storage system aims to allow  consumers to store and manage their rooftop solar energy supply and control their overall household energy use – all with an eye to cutting the cost of electricity bills.

“If the idea is to give more control to the consumer over their energy, with the goal, initially, of reducing their energy bill, then you have to have storage,” said Nahi, in an interview with RenewEconomy last Thursday. 

“You need to be able to use your energy when the solar isn’t there, and that needs storage.”

The Enphase AC Battery was launched at this year’s Solar Power International conference in Las Vegas in October – and named as the event’s most notable new product by PV Magazine.

It is set to be tested in 2015 in the US, Europe and Australia. And according to Nahi, the Australian pilot program will be one of the biggest.

“Our goal is to provide the technology to enable mass adoption of solar. We look for political stability, we look at the right insolation, we look at GDP growth, we look at a bunch of things that make up a viable long-term solar market, and Australia certainly does fit that bill.

“The Australian solar market is actually fairly advanced,” Nahi adds. “The US is still years behind Australia, which in a way, represents an opportunity for us, because we can create products and services that an evolving, a burgeoning solar market really needs and can leverage.

“I think there’s a recognition that solar has not started. If you look at where solar is going, this is a multi­-trillion dollar industry.

“What we do want to do is to provide the consumer the ability to manage and create their own energy; to do it in an affordable way, to do it very simply,” Nahi said.

“As much as we need to do this for the planet, the reality is, unless I can give you an economic benefit, I’ve got a very limited market. If I give you an economic benefit, I have an infinite market.

“Our view, say, two to three years out; we actually don’t believe that people will sell a solar system, or buy a solar system, we believe that you are going to buy an energy system.

“That will necessarily include solar, but it will also include storage, it will also include load management, and it will be wrapped up in a software package and a financial package.”

But while this is sounds like a no-brainer for the consumer, for utilities – especially those wedded to centralised, fossil-fuelled grid infrastructure – it’s a bit more complicated.

“Solar is so disruptive, really, to a very venerable, long-term industry, that it is going to cause some challenges,” said Nahi in Melbourne.

“We are absolutely not a big fan of ‘let’s take everybody off-grid’. I would actually say, that’s completely insane,” he said.

“We don’t want to take everybody off grid. What we do want to do is to provide the consumer the ability to manage and create their own energy; to do it in an affordable way, to do it very simply.

“(We want to) work with the utilities, to help them embrace solar, and recognise that in some cases, business models will need to change.”

“The fact that we have consistent and affordable energy is powerful. We don’t want to mess with that.

“At the same time, we know that if we stay the course, we’re in very big trouble.

Nahi, like many others, believes the price of electricity will keep going up.

“It will go up even if you don’t include the price of carbon,” he says – adding that he “can almost guarantee” carbon will be priced.

“The goal is to stabilise the grid, while we increase the penetration of solar. That takes policy, that takes technology, there’s many parts of that. We view it as our responsibility to be a participant in every portion of it.”

But while policy does come into the equation, Nahi says the politics behind it usually has nothing to do with energy.

“It’s very hard to out-lobby traditional fossil fuels. In the US, they’re very entrenched in the system. So really what we have to do is we have to outcompete them.

“I have no interest in beating them in Washington, I want to beat them at the consumer. I want to provide a better solution, and I can do that through technology and innovation. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

“Solar is growing as fast as it is because it is a cheaper, cleaner alternative. And the dynamics behind that are doing nothing but getting better. Solar’s costs are coming down, the utility prices are going up.”

Enphase’s latest model micro-inverter is a key part of this new round of distributed energy technology, in that it uses bi-directional power flow – that is, AC to DC and DC to AC – thus giving rooftop solar owners the ability to introduce a storage product.

Included in the AC Battery unit alongside the lithium-ion batteries themselves, the micro-inverter means customers can hang it on a wall, plug it in, and have solar plus storage. And you can connect it with other devices, too, such as an electric vehicle.

And while there’s no mention of the cost of the units – including access to the Enphase Energy Management System – as yet, Nahi says the price will be very competitive.

Top image: Enphase CEO Paul Nahi, via Enphase.com

© 2014 Solar Choice Pty Ltd

Giles Parkinson