Bright Future

Express Power Australia

Express Power Australia, one of Australia’s fastest growing solar power providers, was set up in 2011 by Dr Donghua Wang and has since grown rapidly. The company’s recent Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) – initially launched into the South Australian market – met with an enthusiastic response from the public and commercial users alike.

Like almost everyone else, Express Power starts with solar photovoltaic panels that come from China. A global glut of panels has brought down prices. Dr Wang estimates there are more than 1,000 manufacturers in China alone although quality levels vary considerably. “At Express Power we investigate the quality of our suppliers’ panels very carefully and only choose the top quality,” he explains. However, in Express Power’s novel business model, its customers don’t have to worry; they are not buying the panels, only the power.

The company has two divisions, keeping the residential and commercial activities separate because the system requirements are not the same. The former is defined in this case as being up to the maximum capacity that the grid allows to connect to, while the latter has no upper power limit. “Another difference between the two applications is that with the residential installations we design the installation to fit the roof space and the customer can receive a feed-in tariff; for commercial customers we design the system so that most of the power produced is to be consumed by the customer rather than fed into the grid.”

Commercial applications tend to be inherently more efficient since they produce power during the day when the sun is shining yet also consume it during the day, whereas domestic users tend to use more power after sunset. Dr Wang says Express Power is not, at this stage, into storage systems because the technology is not yet up to the standards required – battery systems are expensive and inefficient. Nevertheless, residential systems can be extremely good value for domestic users. “We will match the feed-in tariffs so customers do not need to worry about storage.”

The customer pays Express Power for the power under the terms of a long-term, power purchase agreement drawn up between the company and the customer (including commercial users). Since Express Power owns the system and the customer simply buys the electricity, there are no up-front fees.

The company can deliver the electricity at a fixed flat rate (lower than the current electricity rates) for the entire length of the term of the agreement. Since electricity bills have risen by an average (nationally) of roughly forty per cent over the last three years and show no likelihood of pausing, nailing down a fixed-cost deal now for the next decade and a half has proven to be an attractive proposition for many.

The company is responsible for all of the maintenance and insurance for the period under contract. Both maintenance and round-the-clock web-based monitoring are provided at no additional cost.

Express Power has introduced what it calls Solar iTrack, a live energy monitoring system that enables the customer – either residential or commercial – to view the real-time production of solar system installed through Internet-enabled devices. Customers can log in, at any time, to their online Solar iTrack account from any Internet-enabled computer, tablet or smartphone to access current or historical system production data. Solar iTrack constantly tracks systems’ key performance metrics and displays how much energy the system is producing.

The standard contract is for fifteen years and Dr Wang says any concerns about reliability or performance are unfounded. “The customer does not need to worry about warranty considerations or if the system is under-performing,” he says. “We will look after everything during that period.” The Express Power service team continuously monitors every system’s output and will alert the customer and help to remedy the situation in the case of the system under-performing or malfunctioning.

The company reviews system production daily. In any case, it is in the interests of Express Power to ensure optimum performance, given that it is guaranteeing supply of power to the customer at a set price for the duration of the contract.

So what happens at the end of the contract? “After the contract finishes for the customer having the rate as low as solar Feed in Tariff – which are mainly residential customers – the customer does not own the system. They can buy it at a discounted price, or they can renew the contract if the rate is as low as the solar Feed in Tariff.” Since premium solar panels should have a useful service life of some twenty-five years, they should be good for another decade at this point. “Or they can ask for us to take the system back,” adds Dr Wang in a tone that suggests he would be most surprised if this ever happened. “For commercial customers, who are paying at a premium rate, they will own the system after the Term ends.”

The type of arrangement offered by Express is thought to be the first of its kind in Australia. Dr Wang has had talks with the Australian energy regulators and was invited to present to their board. The solar industry in Europe and the US is further advanced, he explains (though, given the sheer amount of sunshine down here, one is tempted to wonder why this is the case) but concentrates rather more on solar farms instead of rooftop installations. “Our innovation has been to find a way of monitoring even a small (rooftop) system, not just a larger (farm) system.”

Dr Wang, who has a PhD in electrical engineering, agrees that even the best business model would come undone without high quality installation and maintenance services. The industry got a bad name because too many installers depended on government rebates to make their business case and often offered warranties that were not sustainable. After getting the rebates, some simply disappeared. One of the reasons they could get away with such practices was that the market is not yet ‘mature’, and the customer is not educated in buying solar equipment. (Imagine buying your first car a hundred years ago: what do you look for?)

“Our business model is very different because the customer is not the owner of the system – it belongs to Express Solar and we need to ensure we have the best equipment and installation so we get the maximum output from the system. That is what we strive for. We need the top quality installation because if the system has problems our maintenance team has to fix it.”

The company has its own full-time site inspectors (working from offices in New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and soon from Victoria) who check applicants’ roof space to maximise the opportunity in each case. Then carefully vetted installers are sent in. “After the system is installed and is working we send in another site to check quality and efficiency of output. Even the best installer is not perfect so we take care to double – check everything ourselves.”

Dr Wang says that in South Australia – one of the most saturated states for solar – Express Power already takes the biggest market share since the new business model launched, such has been the reception for this new business model. Commercial customers will drive what Dr Wang forecasts will be even faster growth in the near future, especially in WA and NSW because of the abundance of sunlight. Since businesses tend to have most of their electricity usage occur during the daytime, solar systems can help save on electricity bills while helping the environment.

“We are also well recognised and backed up by different financial institutes. We have a lot of contact with them.” The relationships help to ensure this unique and forward-thinking solar provider will continue to offer its services for many years to come.

The future, as they say, is as bright as the sun.

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December 16, 2018, 3:51 PM AEDT