Unisun Energy, on its journey from China to global in 7 years
Originally founded in Shanghai, in 2013, as a solar PV developer, Unisun Energy has made massive strides into the global energy industry. It aims to develop high-quality energy plants worldwide so that customers globally have access to clean energy by investing, developing, constructing and operating solar PV plants. It seems to be on track to do exactly that because, within just 7 years, it has developed an installed capacity of over 1GW and a footprint in over 100 cities, across 5 continents. We spoke to Unisun’s European General Manager, Andre Kempenaars, and Business Development/ Project Director, Leon Heijkoop about the company’s activities in Europe, how they differ to other continents and where they see the future opportunities.
An interview with Andre Kempenaars, General Manager Europe, & Leon Heijkoop, Business Development Director
Can you begin by introducing Unisun Energy and its activities? AK: While we began in China and our headquarters are in Shanghai, we now operate worldwide, with offices in India, Japan, US, Australia and, obviously, also Europe. Our Rotterdam office opened in 2016 and is essentially the hub for our European operations where we develop, build and operate clean energy plants, with a focus on largescale solar, including ground and roof mounted, as well as floating projects. We don’t do any residential projects but we do, for example, roof-mounted solar for large retail chains.
We don’t just install solar panels and sell the energy to the grid; we are also active in smart energy by, for example, making it possible to optimise use of self- generated energy and, in theory self-balance supply and demand, or optimise financially by selling energy to the grid when prices are higher in periods of peak overall demand.
In Europe, we have a large network of experts analysing opportunities in all countries. Where these are significant enough, we create a local entity. In all situations it is important to have people on the ground with strong local knowledge.
Can you tell us about some standout projects? LH: Our large 11.75MW Dutch solar park in Rilland was grid connected at the beginning of 2019. Ground-mounted, with 34,000 N-type bifacial double glass PV modules, it is expected to produce 10,865MWh of electricity annually, enough to power more than 2,500 households and offset 10,000 kilotons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
Two other significant Dutch projects due to be constructed towards the end of the year are a 14MW solar plant at Rotterdam Airport, alongside the runway, and a 12.6MW solar plant in Abdissenbosch, Landgraaf which is specially designed to seamlessly integrate into a protected natural environment.
We are also developing a 3.8MW solar plant rooftop project in Malta, with panels installed on 24.000m2 of hanger rooftops at the airport, with construction due to start early in 2021.
The clean energy future isn’t just about producing renewable energy, it is also about storage and system flexibility to optimise use of energy
Andre Kempenaars Leon Heijkoop
General Manager Europe Business Development Director
at Unisun Energy. at Unisun Energy.
How do you see the future of clean energy and what challenges do you think it will bring? AK:The most immediate challenge is that the network is close to, or near capacity, not just in the Netherlands, but across Europe.The volume of grid-connected renewables is growing faster than it can handle. As a result, storage is becoming increasingly important to avoid overloading the grid and so government stimulation is important, to encourage its use alongside renewables projects. Without sufficient storage, we will start to see curtailment of solar and wind projects in periods of high sun and wind. In fact, we saw that for the first time at the end of June this year when the Dutch grid operator,TenneT, directly switched off all solar and wind parks in the south west of the country to protect the network.
The clean energy future isn’t just about producing renewable energy, it is also about storage and system flexibility to optimise use of energy.The connected whole is still in the experimental phase, with major steps to be taken at both a technical and, perhaps more importantly, policy level.
As a European player, can you talk about the different markets in Europe? What helps development and where is it more challenging?
AK:The main difference is that incentives are inconsistent geographically. Changes to stimuli are driven largely for political gain and sometimes at short notice which, at best, makes it hard to plan and, at worst, can deliver ‘boom or bust’ situations.
In the Netherlands, for example, the stimulus for compensating unprofitable solar and wind production, SDE +, was meant to end in 2019 and be replaced by the expanded SDE ++, which further incentivises energy transition.Then, in November 2019, at fairly short notice, the government announced an additional round of SDE + in spring 2020.
LH: Another example is Spain, where there was a buoyant solar market until 2015, when the government introduced the highly controversial solar tax, which effectively financially punished people for high consumption of self-generated energy. In 2018, the newly elected government repealed the tax and things are now moving forward again quite quickly.
AK: Ultimately, an efficient transition to a future energy system requires that all governments establish and achieve clear long-term sustainability goals.
Are there other initiatives on your sustainability agenda to drive clean energy? AK: One key initiative is looking at dual use of land; for example, car ports with integrated solar, or agricultural land with PV installed at a higher level to provide some of the benefits of a traditional greenhouse while allowing crops to grow underneath.
Like any forward-looking organisation, we are planning to move to an electric car fleet. We are also in talks with a potential geothermal energy partner to investigate whether it can be combined with solar PV to make their heat pumps energy neutral. Innovation is the key word in this fast-growing renewables market.
Can you comment on your relationship with Alfen? AK: It is important for us to work with a reliable partner, with good experience, who is used to thinking and sharing ideas in order to arrive at the optimal solution. We have enjoyed our working relations and working together to take projects to the next level.
LH: Alfen has offered considerable value with its knowledge and advice related to medium voltage networks, to help us find the solution which has considered the bigger picture including installation costs, efficiency and reliability.