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OPINION: Asia could help ease solar's woes

For companies struggling to make money in markets burdened with overcapacity, developing new markets is an obvious solution.

It is a route that is increasingly being taken by solar companies, several of which see Asia as the answer to their woes.

Juwi, Trina, ReneSola, Saint-Gobain and GL Garrad Hassan all opened offices in Singapore last week, from where they hope to win new customers in growing markets such as Thailand, India and Japan.

It could be a good move when you weigh the region’s growth prospects against its energy resources.

As a former director of the International Energy Agency, Nobuo Tanaka, pointed out in a speech to the Asia Future Energy Forum, energy security is a major concern for much of Asia. China will be the world’s largest importer of oil in 2020, and the largest consumer by 2035, he says.

Meanwhile, Japan’s decision to phase out nuclear will leave a gaping hole in its energy supply, and the power shortages in India caused a huge blackout last summer.

Fears for energy security are pushing demand for renewable options such as wind and solar.

But large populations, extreme weather and insufficient grid networks all present challenges for renewable power generation.

Asia’s fast-developing, densely populated cities are covered in skyscrapers, leaving little roof space for solar panels, while building facades are often shaded by the apartment block next door.

And land is scarce in much of Asia, limiting the size of utility-scale projects.

The challenges could trigger some much-needed innovation, however.

Engineeering standards body DNV is looking for partners to pilot its concept for a 2MW floating solar island, inspired by the smaller systems found on reservoirs in California vineyards.

The concept, which Recharge reported last week, proposes attaching pliable thin-film panels to a rigid structure that could be moored 8km off the coast in the relatively calm seas of Southeast Asia. This would allow it to get close to population centres in need of energy, without using scarce land.

Naturally, it would be more expensive than an onshore system. DNV suggests it could be deployed for $2.50 per watt.But as one solar executive notes, the concept is a whole system, and that allows companies to move away from the current model of selling panels as low-priced commodities.

Perhaps Asia can offer more than new markets — by creating an environment for developing new business models too.