CEO Interviews

THE INTERVIEW: ABB’S BOTTI

Leonardo Botti, head of global marketing, product group solar at ABB, spoke to Energy Storage Journal about the company’s plans for the way that its residential product line can also fit the future. 

Pushing ahead on the domestic home front

In 2013 when ABB acquired Power- One, the global number two producer of solar photovoltaic inverters at the time, for $1 billion, the deal marked an important step in the firm’s transformation into a global provider of smart grid products and systems.

Inverters are critical components in distributed generation, particularly for rooftop solar PV.

Leonardo Botti, Head of Global Marketing, Product Group Solar at ABB

Leonardo Botti, Head of Global Marketing, Product Group Solar at ABB

One of the product technologies ABB acquired through its takeover of Power-One is a residential energy storage system, an all-in-one product that integrates the battery with the inverter. ABB started rolling out the behind-the-meter energy storage system in Europe in 2016 to meet growing demand for self-consumption, enabled by PV-plus-storage.

ABB’s solar product group encompasses both residential, business-to-consumer (B2C) products, such as string inverters, and larger, utility-scale, business-to-business (B2B) products, such as central inverters and packaged solutions.

The product solar group is also responsible for React, ABB’s home energy storage system for integration with residential and small commercial rooftop PV systems. The system uses Panasonic’s lithium ion batteries. (The letters in React stand for Renewable Energy Accumulator and Conversion Technology.)

React, comprising an all-in-one battery, smart inverter and energy management system, originated from the home energy storage product developed by inverter supplier Power-One, which ABB acquired in 2013. The system is designed for new PV and storage installations. For retrofit installations, the existing solar inverter becomes obsolete.

The energy storage system can channel electricity generated by the solar PV modules to power loads in the home during the daytime, as well as charge the battery with surplus solar PV electricity, and export any remaining energy to the grid.

The React system releases energy to power loads in the house when the panels are not generating electricity and can absorb electricity from the grid to charge the batteries, though this functionality is not being promoted by ABB since grid operators will not allow this function in some markets.

React was available in Italy first, this spring. The system is modular and can be expanded up to three times.

Italy’s solar PV-storage market is much smaller compared with Germany’s. Compared with about 14,000- 15,000 systems of small-scale energy storage systems sold in Germany, in Italy the amount is in the several hundreds.

“You have to be a pioneer with a new technology. That means being a first mover in markets,” says Botti.

Italian market 

While the availability of energy storage products in Italy is more limited compared with Germany, since the market is more nascent and much smaller, the availability of an all-in-one inverter and battery product is a distinct offering compared with the existing installations.

Many of these use lead-acid batteries and are coupled to the PV system in a more rudimentary way so that the batteries can charge up with solar electricity for use later, but cannot integrate with the grid, which requires smart (bi-directional) inverter technologies.

Due to various factors, including a tax reduction on solar PV and solar PV plus storage systems over the first 10 years of the product’s operation, electricity rates and plenty of sunshine hours, plus ongoing reductions in the cost of solar PV and energy storage systems, Italy is seen as an attractive market for solar plus storage because home owners can save money on bills by increasing their self-consumption in addition to tax reductions.

“On average, payback is possible between six and eight years, for a consumer installing a solar plus storage system in Italy today,” Botti says.

ABB’s market share in Italy is more than 30%, and it is one of the company’s key markets in Europe, so it is intending to leverage its existing market presence in Italy to promote React through its existing solar distribution channels.

By December 2016 ABB will start rolling out React Europe-wide, targeting Germany, the UK and the Benelux countries.

With cuts to FiT incentives it can make more sense for new PV customers to install an energy storage system along with their rooftop solar system, while some existing PV customers, which have already achieved payback for their PV installations are now looking at installing energy storage so that they can increase their self-consumption.

Whether new or retrofit, adding battery storage to PV can save money on bills.

Though payback timeframes in the UK are around the ten-year mark, the market is promising, as the UK has a lot of middle and high-income earners that can afford PV and storage systems, without necessarily having to invest in loans. “Because costs have come down, you can spend the same on a PV and storage system — a few thousand pounds — than you would on a two-week family holiday abroad,” he says.

In the UK, consumers are also generally savvy about gadgets and technology, believes Botti. “The UK will continue to see growth in rooftop residential solar PV but it will be underpinned by energy storage – the self-consumption market,” he says.

Across Europe generally, incentives like the FiT have been reduced or cut, so the incentive to buy a PV system in order to make money by selling electricity to the grid no longer exists.

“Self-consumption means less in terms of annual PV sales than European markets have witnessed in previous years but it means much steadier growth and sales – we welcome that.”

React has been certified for the UK market and ABB is in the process of qualifying distribution partners.

Business-to-consumer market 

The React product is helping to grow ABB’s B2C market, although the company is probably best recognized as a global player in the energy sector for its equipment and products. However, within the corporation it does also have B2C channels such as smart plugs for homes and buildings for improving energy efficiency.

“Energy storage is a technology that straddles both markets. But the utility-scale application is very different from the residential distributed generation aapplication, hence requiring different technical requirements and different market channels – the utility-scale battery energy storage systems that ABB provides are supplied through the new power grid division,” says Botti.

“But in principle it is critical that our residential energy storage system is as relevant to utilities as much as our industrial, multi-megawatt storage systems,” he says.

The innovative design of React means that it contains all of the software protocols that are required for individual systems to be networked and controlled as one virtual power plant platform.

Utilities 

“We are talking to utilities in Europe and the discussions we’ve had are with executives, responsible for innovation, who are reporting directly to the CEO and they are saying that in future centralized energy generation — though it is always going to be required — is no longer going to be sufficient as their only business model. They have to move away from that traditional model and redefine the utility role in terms of electricity trading, as well as centralized generation and distribution.

“Utilities know there is a change coming in the energy sector, particularly in the retail electricity market, where more consumers will be producing and consuming electricity, where electrification of cars and vehicles is going to occur. These are challenges that also present new opportunities for utilities.

“In terms of React we have a future-proof product platform and when utilities are ready to communicate what they want to control and measure we can enable that,” he says.

Despite Germany being the largest but also the most competitive and the most crowded market for energy storage systems, ABB will also be rolling out React there in the coming months.

“Germany has been a pioneer in solar PV and it has also pioneered energy storage, so we need to be present there. Also, we believe there is scope for alternative products, especially an all-in-one inverter and battery type of product,” says Botti.

In future ABB will also probably extend its smart inverter/energy storage platform with more flexible offerings, such as smart inverters that are configured to work with different batteries in order to have a behind-the-meter energy storage product range that meets various consumers’ requirements.

“For now, our React product is a really innovative offering that we are confident will prove popular with installers and consumers as the self-consumption market emerges across Europe,” Botti says.

ABB recently promoted React at the All-Energy tradeshow in Australia. “Definitely Australia is one of the markets outside of Europe that we are looking at with a lot of interest,” he says.

 

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