“The Whole Ethos of the Company is Energy Independence”, Sunpower Renewables

As the energy market continues to open up In India, it’s throwing up a number of opportunities for firms. One such firm is Australia based Sunpower Renewables, which has focused on storage based solutions using Lithium Ion batteries. Starting with a simple solar lantern back in 2016, the firm today is offering an array of portable storage products that it claims are seeing strong traction In India too. We caught up with Rahul Kale, Founder and CEO, and Nitasha Badhwar, Chief Strategy Officer, to understand the experience and expectations from India.

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Q. So give us your introduction to Sunpower Renewables first.

Rahul kale

Rahul kale, Founder and CEO, Sunpower Renewables

Rahul: We are an Australian firm based in Melbourne, Victoria, I have been the founder and now, CEO. Our whole core focus has been on product development and innovation, where we develop very innovative solar- portable solar lithium generators. What we’ve done is we’ve integrated all the different components of a solar power plant into a single compact device which becomes a plug and play unit, and can replace power requirements for backup like diesel generators, home ups inverters with lead acid batteries. And we mean that. All the different components of the solar plant with additional features like an in-built Inverter, MPPT charge controller, a pure sine wave UPS, a reversible net meter and an in-built Li-Ion battery pack for energy storage. Thus, ours is a complete, direct substitute and replacement for those units. We are one of the only companies in the world who have got a range of products, from the smaller handheld portable units to larger units used for residential and commercial purposes. Our closest competitor on the larger end of the spectrum is Tesla with Powerwall, and even they don’t have a portable version whereas all our machines are portable. We’ve been developing this product for the last 5-6 years. We started commercialising our technology in 2018, 2019. We’ve been in India for the last couple of years, and have seen significant growth and demand for our products being generated in the country. Our products are Australian made, all are manufactured in Melbourne and obviously as the pandemic is fueling more and more demand for electricity, the demand for our products is also going up exponentially.

Nitasha: I’d say our product really aids and affects the growth of solar renewable in the country, and everywhere else. Like Rahul said our range allows for anyone to use our product. So that means you could use a handheld if you’re going on a car trip, and you can use it to use storage for the house as well as for your business, or anything else. Beyond that we’ve been winning a few awards in Australia and internationally for the sort of innovative research that’s gone into our product, which is one of its type.

Q. How are customers using these products? Use cases.

Rahul: The use cases for the products are very varied. Anywhere where electricity is required, our products can be used. You have your traditional segments like residential, commercial, industrial and off grid. We can see our products being used in defence sector, they’re being used in humanitarian aid, they’re being used in the medical industry at the moment during the pandemic for mobile hospitals. They’ve been used to power satellite phones in the pacific islands. We’ve seen them used for agricultural pumps and other agricultural equipment. We use them to charge electric vehicles for portable power. So literally, anywhere where there is power requirement. Fueling strong demand. Especially in a country like India, where a lot of people are still dependent on diesel generators or home UPS inverters as energy backup. Ours is a much better, cleaner, greener and more affordable option than any of the existing solutions that are available.

Q. What is your current manufacturing capacity?

Rahul: Currently, we have a capacity to manufacture close to two and a half megawatts of storage products per year. For a market like India, as our growth and demand grows in the country, we are looking to move some of our assembly lines to India.

Q. With your own set up ? Or through a partner?

Rahul: We have a couple of distributors who are capable and prepared to take over the assembly lines over here. In stage one we’ll look to move some assembly lines and in the near future when we hit our target of 5 MW sales for the Indian market, then we will look to move the manufacturing over here as well.

Q. These manufacturing numbers seem low, when we hear about GW sized setups all the time.

Rahul: See, we’re looking at a completely different segment over here. You’re looking at solar panels and large scale utility products. That’s a very different market. We are looking at the diesel generator market or the home UPS inverter market, where there’s lead acid batteries. Two completely different markets. For a capacity like what we’re talking about in terms of 5 megawatts in energy storage, that’s still a very large number.

Q. So far, the sectors you mentioned in India, be it defence, hospitals and emergency uses, the requirement has been urgent, and possibly cost was not the main issue. What about wider acceptance?

Nitasha Badhwar

Nitasha Badhwar, Chief Strategy Officer,
Sunpower Renewables

Nitasha: In the last few years, solar panels and storage have continued to depreciate in price whereas diesel has continued to increase. We’ve all seen our bills, where, you know, the price of diesel is going up and significantly impacting all industries. People are opting for our product because it’s a one time cost, whereas with diesel you’re continuing to pay every month, and there’s a lot more maintenance. This tends to be maintenance free, and there’s not much effort required to set up either. As we mentioned, it’s a plug and play product. So the second you pick it up, you plug it in, and you’re ready to go

Rahul: So in terms of cost comparison to diesel generator, the payback is around 8-9 months and the life of our product is anywhere between 10-12 years, so essentially you’re getting almost 10 years of free power by opting for our machine. To understand this payback figure, consumption wise, if you look at a residential diesel generator that’s used in a residential home, take a 5 or 7 kva generator or 10 kva generator. The cost of the generator plus the running cost with the maintenance and cost of diesel versus our cost for an equivalent product in our range, you’re looking at about an 8 to 9 month payback. By integrating it with solar electricity(generation) during the day, you can use the in-built batteries to power them during the non-peak usage between the evening- night phase and early morning.

Q. And what is the maximum capacity you offer currently?

Rahul: maximum capacity is around 50 kWh of storage in a single unit. It doesn’t necessarily end at 50kWh of storage. What happens is you can add multiple units just like the Tesla Powerwall, as its modular.

Nitasha: You know, one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had till now, was awareness. 2-3 years back, when we launched people were not aware that a product like this exists. Whenever they wanted to go for energy backup they still used to go for diesel generators or those bulky lead acid batteries, like if you look at your home inverter and the ups, they come with those bulky lead acid batteries which are inefficient and last as little as 2 years and are costly. Our products completely replace that- its more technologically advanced, its smaller and compact, it’s portable, you could literally pick it up in the car. We’ve got customers in Delhi who used the product in their homes during the year, and in the summer when they go up to Shimla for their summer holidays, they take the backup into the car and they take it up and power their homes in the hills. It becomes a lot more versatile in its usage and adaptability, rather than a bulky little battery bank as energy backup.

Q. So on a per kilowatt basis, would you be able to share a number? Like what does it actually cost?

Rahul: So per kilowatt we’re roughly about 75 to 80 thousand rupees per kilowatt hour (kWh). And when I say that remember that we have all the components already in our machine. So if you look at other units you have to buy a separate inverter, you have to buy a separate battery, so all those costs add up, whereas ours has no reissue cost and everything is already part of that cost.

Q. What about your portable sets, what is the lowest capacity and cost in your range?

Rahul: So our lowest capacity is as small as a 130 watt hour battery, and we’re selling that for about 17500 rupees. We have seen a lot of success in tier two, tier three cities or in the remote camping kind of market when they want to go off grid for camping especially in this pandemic time where international travel is hit, every ones travelling domestically. So many people are taking our units and travelling with that. The larger units obviously go into the lakh range, a few lakhs depending on the size of the battery. While the cost per watt hour also reduces, our 10 kilowatt hour unit, we’re selling for roughly about seven and a half lakhs rupees. We’ve had a customer in the Andaman islands who has installed a 60kWh unit- so they’ve got a 150 kWh unit and one 10kWh unit. Above 30kWh unit, we also have three phase units. So we have got single phase and three phase, both types of units.

Nitasha: We like to think of this as bespoke electricity. According to your need is how much you buy, whereas with diesel, you might be lighting one light, but would have to burn that much diesel to get your generator running.

Q. Sectors like fuel stations, telecom tend to be huge consumers of back up power. How have you done there?

We’ve had customers at a few petrol stations, and for petrol stations it’s a very different kind of value proposition. If you look at existing solar solutions they’re only put up for office lighting or canopy lighting. At a petrol station If there was any electricity shortage, even for one petrol pump nozzle, they have to run the entire diesel generator, which is usually a 5-20 kVa generator leading to inefficiency and wastage. What we’ve managed to achieve with our machine- so our machine has a ups in built in it, and the cutoff from electricity to our machine is 0.08 microseconds.

diesel generator

So when the electricity goes off, there is no disruption in the power. The petrol pump nozzle can actually put on our machine directly. So even if there is no electricity, petrol pumps have not just recorded a drop in their operational cost, but also reported an increase in revenue.

Q. How long should a 10 kilowatt battery last considering normal usage during a power cut?

It depends on the load you put on. If we take a standard standalone home for example, with one or two ACs running, you have a load of about 3kW. So if there’s no electricity at all or no solar at all you’re getting 3-4 hours of backup with the ACs on. Without the ACs on, obviously, you’d get a much longer backup. Our whole point- the whole ethos of the company, is energy independence. The idea is that you should be able to live off-grid.

Q. How about diesel gensets in the telecom space?

Rahul: We’ve had success in Australia, in the Pacific Islands. In India, we’ve installed a couple of our units in the mining industry with privately owned mines. Austrade is helping us get connections with a few telecom players here to see how we would broaden our reach into the sector. In the Pacific islands, they were using battery tech from Germany in the telecom towers. They’ve replaced those completely with our products.

Q. For such a high value, modular structure, theft would be a risk. How can we control that?

Rahul: All the machines come with a GPS feature. A mobile application enables you to remotely monitor performance, output. One of the anti-theft and anti-damage measures we have taken is to build a cabinet around it to make sure it is protected. In a direct aid program financed by the Australian High commission in Rajasthan, we installed our units across 14 education institutions, and all these units are powered by our machines making them energy independent. We encased a small cabinet around the machines to make sure they are not tampered with.

Nitasha: With the larger units, you have the option off keeping the wheels on as these come with a break lock. This is meant to keep them in position, otherwise the wheels scan be removed. Keep in mind that the larger machines are heavy. A 10 kW unit would be about 250 Kilos.

Q. What about recycling or buyback options?

Rahul: There are two things that we are working on. One is that our life span for the battery is roughly around 10 years. Only the efficiency drops to 80 %. As a young firm , we are still some time away for that cycle to start. But we do plan to recycle those batteries. We are one of the founding members of the Victorian Cleantech cluster. We are working not just to recycle the batteries but also improving the efficiency of used batteries. Extend its life. Well maintained batteries can last over 15 years, though we can’t claim that yet. In our R&D centre we are seeing over 15 year life cycles. Another option is to source used EV batteries as a battery for our product and sold at a much lower cost for the off grid market. Since these batteries only lose efficiency, but are still at 80% levels, which is good enough for stationary storage in many cases. 

Q. What is the current warranty on your products?

We offer a 2 year warranty. Life span is about 10 years. The warranty is extendable warranty upto 5 years at a cost.

Q. How are you selling in India?

Rahul: In India we have multiple distributors to reach our customers. Pre-pandemic, we were focusing solely on selling through our distributors who already had a customer base. Post pandemic, we’ve had to ramp up our digital assets, our social media strategy and Again, pre-pandemic we are going solely through our distributors who already had a customer base. Post pandemic, we’ve had to ramp up our digital assets, our social media strategy, our PR activities. We are now on Amazon, we recently tied up with croma. Pre-pandemic, we were selling a lot of the larger units. During the pandemic, buying habits have changed. Suddenly, we have seen a big uptake in the handheld range also, By the middle of 2022, we will still see a lot of growth in the hand held segment but the larger segment will come back stronger. People are looking at cleaner, greener, more affordable options.

Q. What is the current size and future targets for Sunpower Renewables?

Rahul: Our topline currently is close to 8 million dollars. We are growing at 150% a year. Just the diesel energy replacement market is around 2.5 billion dollars. By 2023, we hope to do business worth 25 million dollars here. In the next 5 years, 50.

Sunpower Renewables diesel energy replacement market

Q. Have you raised any funding?

Rahul: We are debt free, no external funding. So self funded, a self-sustained business.

Nitasha: We will be launching some new products by the end of this year that we are very excited about. One option is dealing with last mile anxiety with EV cars. We will be offering a product that will boost the car batteries a little, giving it the added power to move to the nearest charging station if required.

Q. Do you see a further drop in prices helping? What’s the Ideal price point?

Rahul: The challenge we have is not the price point, its more the awareness. This market has really surprised us. Feedback says that the assumption is that we largely sell handheld pieces. For the larger pieces of 10 KW for residential or business use, a Rs 7.5 lacs unit with an asset write off is not an issue.

Q. As Australia, your home market is a market where rooftop solar has been a big success, and off grid applications too, how has that helped you design and validate your products acceptance?

Australia has been quite successful in implementing its solar rooftop strategy through clear and regulated policies, along with Government incentives to promote the adoption of rooftop solar like tax breaks and subsidies. Since the last 2-3 years, there have been Federal and State incentives to promote the inclusion of batteries as part of the solar rooftop offering.

This has helped us tremendously during our product development phase as we are able to test and validate our products, technology, and its commercial suitability real time in the market. We have tested our products in different industries, locations and customer segments to understand their performance across different weather and consumption patterns. Our partnership with the Calperum Environment Station in South Australia is an excellent example of this where they are using our handheld and grid connected products for independent and sustainable energy generation. The data we get from the station helps us in validating our product performance.

Having our R&D centre in Melbourne helps as we can incorporate these learnings quickly into our product development cycle and continuously improve our product quality and performance. In the end we feel this rigorous and thorough testing has led the team to create an extremely versatile product, durable and capable of performing in extreme conditions and situations.

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Prasanna Singh

Prasanna has been a media professional for over 20 years. He is the Group Editor of Saur Energy International