[Newsmaker] Is sun setting on Hanhwa heir’s solar dream?
Aug 9, 2021
Hanwha Q Cells sinks deeper into red, but Kim’s vision for a turnaround faces doubts
Hanwha Solutions President Kim Dong-kwan (Hanwha)
Kim Dong-kwan, the eldest son and apparent heir of Hanwha Group Chairman Kim Seung-youn, has proved his mettle by taking the helm of the group’s money-bleeding solar business in 2011 and turning it into the world’s No. 6 solar energy player, Hanwha Q Cells. Poised to succeed his father to lead the country’s seventh-largest conglomerate, the 38-year-old now oversees Hanwha Solutions, launched last year after the merger of Hanwha Q Cells and two other Hanwha companies, and is also spearheading the group’s foray into future growth areas such as hydrogen energy, air mobility and aerospace. But back at Q Cells where he first started off, the young leader’s legacy is facing increasing doubts, as it sinks deeper into losses. In the second quarter of this year, the solar business division of Hanwha Solutions logged an operating loss of 64.6 billion won ($56.3 million) following the previous quarter’s 14.9 billion won loss. The deterioration stemmed from a global price hike of polysilicon, the most important raw material for solar cells. In June, the United States banned the import of polysilicon tied to forced labor in Xinjiang, China, where ethnic minority Uyghurs are reportedly coerced into polysilicon production and where nearly half of the world’s polysilicon supplies are concentrated. The US sanction triggered a global race to source polysilicon from elsewhere and the price of polysilicon per kilogram peaked at $28 in June, quadrupling from $7 a year ago. During a conference call on July 29, a Hanwha Q Cells official predicted an improvement in profitability, as a declining price of wafer, a component that makes a solar cell, would offset some of the polysilicon price pressure. Yet, the firm would remain in the red, though the loss amount would shrink, the official said. Reflecting a negative outlook, local brokerages slashed the target price of Hanwha Solution, traded on Kospi. Hana Financial Investment sliced it to 45,000 won per share from 50,000 won. Kim saw this day coming. He knew that the firm could no longer survive the cutthroat competition against cheap Chinese solar products and did not want the firm’s fate be dictated by fluctuations of polysilicon prices. In an effort to find sources of revenue other than PV cells and modules, the company is developing a next-generation solar cell called tandem cell that it aims to commercialize by 2023. Also, instead of simply selling the equipment, the company is exploring a new business model -- designing, building and managing a solar power plant and selling the whole plant later at a higher price. The latest push by Kim to overhaul Hanwha Q Cells’ hardware-focused business portfolio -- solar cell and module manufacturing -- into a software-oriented one entails a virtual power plant. Last August, he acquired US energy software company Geli to push for the virtual power plant business. In Germany, where Hanwha Q Cells stands as the No. 1 player, controlling 11.5 percent of the country’s solar panel market, the firm is exploring a business based on its brand power. Since last year, Hanwha Q Cells started building solar panels on the rooftops of German households for free. Subscribers can buy the power solar panels, paying less than what they have been paying for electric utilities, saving them money and helping to fight climate change. In exchange, Hanwha Q Cells would own the solar panels and generate profits by selling leftover electricity on top of subscription fees. Grouped together, the subscribers themselves would form a giant, self-sufficient power plant. Using Geli’s software, Hanwha Q Cells would stabilize the intermittency of solar energy and balance the supply and demand of electricity among households. “Imagine having a whole state as a subscriber of our virtual power plant service. Hanwha Q Cells has a competitive edge thanks to its brand power,” a company official said. However, experts throw a question mark over Hanwha Q Cells’ virtual power plant business because it is not welcomed by the authorities. According to Yuanta Securities analyst Hwang Kyu-won, the virtual power plant business runs the risk of undermining the interests of giant utilities and discouraging them from making investments into infrastructure, which would ultimately destabilize a region’s grid network. “A few years ago, California banned free installations of residential rooftop solar panels due to frequent blackouts. Households formed a virtual power plant and stopped buying electricity from utility companies. In response, the utility companies stopped upgrading and rolling out the grids. The households became isolated and eventually suffered blackouts. California revised related laws and required homeowners to spend their own money for rooftop solar panels,” Hwang said. “It costs roughly 2 billion won to install a grid per kilometer. If households source electricity on their own, then who in the world will make the investments?”
In the case of Korea, electricity can’t be purchased and sold between households. Instead, all trades of electricity have to go through Korea Electric Power Corp., making the country ineligible for virtual power plant business. By Kim Byung-wook ( firstname.lastname@example.org )