The Balance Between Cost and QualityWed, 02/21/2018 - 13:04
With the growing demand for solar energy, companies must carefully tread the line between cost-effectiveness and quality. But lack of supply often means that panels are imported from China because of their high availability and low costs. With this in mind, María José Icaza, Director General of Mexican solar panel manufacturer SOLARSOL, says it is crucial to improve the local value chain in Mexico. “We want to make a difference in the Mexican market by placing a special emphasis on producing a topquality product based on local innovation and prove that Mexican products can comply with the highest quality standards,” she says.
Ensuring quality in a new market is not easy for local suppliers, even more so when the technology is photovoltaic cells, which require highly specialized equipment and a highly trained workforce. That is why SOLARSOL chose to perform the majority of its operations in Mexico, while leaving the highly specialized work abroad, explains Icaza. “To get the cells, we went to Asia, looked for the most innovative product and developed a partnership with a Taiwanese company,” she says. “Although we buy cells from our provider in Taiwan, the remaining raw materials are Mexican and the panel assembly is carried out in Mexico.”
To ensure quality, Icaza decided to go to Asia personally and inspect the provider’s facilities firsthand, and this is the same strategy the company adopts with local suppliers. “In this era, everything can be done via phone or internet, but we visit our local and international suppliers to get a full understanding of the reality of their manufacturing installations,” she explains. “We know how easy it is for a company to state that it is certified, but it is completely different to witness their processes firsthand and ensure the correct procedures take place.”
Prices of Chinese-manufactured panels are the lowest in the market and it is hard to compete against them. In this regard, Icaza relies on the quality factor as she expects it will have an increasing role on the purchasing decisions of final customers. “SOLARSOL’s price is not the lowest, but it allows us to be competitive in the Mexican market. Chinese panels are entering Mexico in a way that allows them to pay less taxes, making them cheaper than ours,” she says. SOLARSOL has developed a standard panel that produces 310W through PERC mono crystalline cells, with efficiency of approximately 21 percent.
Installation quality is key for solar systems because inappropriate positioning can severely affect the amount of generated energy. But when an installation does not work as it should, it is much easier for an installer to blame the producer of the components. SOLARSOL places great emphasis on the quality of its installation agents. “We select our installers by checking their credentials and visiting installations they have previously completed to ensure they work to top-quality standards,” Icaza says.
Finding the correct market is another factor to consider for companies like SOLARSOL, and a balance needs to be found between solar potential and market penetration. “There are already many companies working in the north and center of the country so we looked for a promising area that was in a development phase. Merida was the perfect fit,” Icaza says. “It has a residential sector that is increasingly favoring solar panels, as well as a couple of projects that were awarded during the first long-term electricity auction, which indicates there are more opportunities to come.”
Beyond the advantage of having fewer competitors, Merida also provides SOLARSOL with a special logistics advantage. “Being close to the port of Progreso, which has direct connections to Florida and other Central American ports, it opens internationalization possibilities, and fits perfectly with our future ambitions,” says Icaza. “By 2020, we want to reach our full 20MW production capacity per year, which will allow us to further penetrate the national market and to start exporting.” She says the company’s first market as an international brand would be Central America since there are few manufacturers in that region, resulting in huge imports of panels manufactured in China. “We want to change that by becoming the preferred option because of our quality and status as a regional company,” she says.