In the few anxiety-ridden months of waiting for our very first Apple store to open its glass doors, all we had were carefully-released snippets of information to cling onto.
Speculations were also rife – will the Singapore store have country-specific specials like Japan’s Fukubukuro tradition? With its strict employee training system, will we also be able to enjoy exceptional customer service from its staff?
While none of that was revealed, one piece of information stood confirmed – that homegrown solar energy provider Sunseap will be the sole provider of the store’s power supply.
This also meant that the store is also the first establishment in Singapore that runs entirely on solar energy.
Said Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives in a statement to CNET:
We’re thrilled to be working with Sunseap and the government of Singapore to pioneer new ways to bring solar energy to the country and bring Apple even closer to our goal of powering our facilities around the world with 100 percent renewable energy.
Fast forward to the end of May 2017, and we took a tour of the space, fully aware (and relieved) that its many bright lights and screens were powered by clean energy.
But while the store has been getting a lot of attention, the local company that has been lighting up its beautiful facade still remains in the shadows.
Perhaps this is also due to the not-so visible locations of their panels as most of them mounted on the usually inaccessible rooftops of tall buildings.
Recently, the same company had also partnered with the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIES), and participated in the largest floating photovoltaic (PV) testbed in Singapore at Tengeh Reservoir.
We talked to the founders of Sunseap, and found out more about the company that is helping to make solar power a mainstay source of energy in Singapore.
When An Accountancy Major Met An Engineering Major
The founders of Sunseap are Frank Phuan and Lawrence Wu, both of whom are Nanyang Technological University (NTU) alumni that graduated in 2000.
Albeit being in different courses – Lawrence in accountancy and Frank in engineering, they met through a group of mutual friends and it was only 9 years later, in 2009, that they both had the common identification that there was a growing trend of renewable energy.
It was also then that they conceptualised the business model for the company.
Says Lawrence, “We realised that as much as people want to go green, buying a solar system is like paying up to years of power consumption upfront, and it is not a realistic option for most people. We wanted to remove the financial burden and technicality of maintaining and operating a solar system.”
We want Sunseap to provide affordable clean energy solutions to everyone.
This was when they stumbled upon the solar Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) model, where solar energy adopters need only to pay for their usage through electrical bills on a monthly basis – something like how we pay for our bills now.
In 2011, they formed their first solar energy business entity – Sunseap Leasing Pte Ltd.
It was in the same year that they had their first solar PPA project, which was with 40 blocks of HDB flats under the Punggol-Pasir Ris Town Council.
Since then, they have installed panels on “thousands of HDBs in various town councils including estates in Jurong, Tampines, and Punggol”.
“We Had To Literally Grow Our Entire Value Chain”
Frank’s experience with his family business, which started manufacturing solar panels in 1979 also helped greatly in the setting up of Sunseap.
“I spent time in my family business of solar panel manufacturing since I was a teenager. My experience helped me to develop technical knowledge on solar panels and the business.”
Lawrence’s accountancy/banking background also helped with the financing aspect of the business, “particularly in raising the requisite funding and helped put in place the capital structure required to implement our solar projects”.
But even with their solid backgrounds, the duo admits that it was “especially tough” for their business to secure significant funding during their early years.
“We found out that because the industry is rather nascent, we had to educate financial institutions on our business models to help them understand and familiarise with it. It wasn’t easy but through this process, we were able to secure more debt financing options to fund our projects.”
Their first project – two MegaWatt-peak (MWp), across 40 rooftops to 200 MWp across 2,000 rooftops – was also at a scale that the industry, still at its infancy stages, wasn’t ready for.
“There was simply no supplier who could install the amount of solar systems required in such a short span of time. There were only a handful of contractors that were experienced.”
We had to literally grow our entire value chain. With the demand we created, we have to create the supply.
Taking matters into their own hands, they then started training workers in the construction and the mechanical engineering sector – almost transforming some of these companies overnight to become solar companies.
“All the construction firms, civil engineering, mechanical and electrical firms, they hired many foreign workers so we had to train everyone, in terms of safety, working at height and train them on what it means to install solar systems.”
“At one time, our project had 600 to 700 people.”
From their first project to now, they have swelled from four staff (including the founders) to around 90-strong currently.
As for funding, energy giant Royal Dutch Shell has also just invested in them for an undisclosed sum as part of a planned collaboration on solar projects in the Asia-Pacific region.
Clinching Big Projects
Over the years, Sunseap has also managed to clinch an impressive portfolio of clients – mainly comprising businesses in the commercial and industrial sectors.
Apart from those they won through government tenders, some of their bigger clients include Panasonic, Jurong Port, Cambridge Industrial Trust, and United Technologies.
As expected, both count the Apple project the ‘breakout’ for their company.
Shared Lawrence, “The Apple project we announced in 2015 where we signed an agreement to provide its local operations with 100% clean energy […] allowed us to become a full-fledged utilities company.”
“A solar system atop its corporate office in Ang Mo Kio helps to achieve a portion of its energy needs, while our offsite clean energy supply model fufills the rest.”
He admitted that while the project was indeed challenging, it had helped them to develop their second business, Sunseap Energy Pte Ltd, that specialises in offsite clean energy supply for businesses who are keen to utilise clean energy, but do not have access to a roof to install a solar system.
“We Want You To Use As Little Energy As Possible”
Not just to save the environment with green energy, the company also has a mission to help Singaporeans save money – by producing enough solar energy so that its price in the market would eventually be low enough for all the afford.
I think solar energy has the opportunity to become the lowest priced and the most affordable energy globally, and when that time comes, it will not make any sense to choose any form of energy other than those generated from renewable sources.
“We want to be the company that will enable everyone to reach that destination.”
We don’t want you to use energy from traditional sources, we want you to use as little energy as possible.
“We want to get into the business of energy efficiency where we encourage you to use less energy. That is also in line with the Singapore Government’s vision.”
But given that Singapore is a land-scarce country with limited deployable land, they admit that this is still a problem they’re trying to solve alongside the aid of government agencies.
“One way of doing so is to look at other deployable areas apart from rooftop space, such as water bodies. Our floating PV project at Tengeh Reservoir seeks to determine the feasibility of expanding solar systems onto water bodies to maximise deployment in the land-scarce country.”
They’re also excited about the liberalisation of the electricity market in Singapore this year, which will enable residents in public housing estates to procure their energy from various energy retailers – including Sunseap.
“Thereafter, we would be able to supply households with the clean energy generated from the solar systems installed on their rooftops or other rooftops in Singapore.”
With the emergence of energy ‘marketplaces’ like Electrify.sg (which has also worked with Sunseap and SERIS) that allow consumers to choose from different forms of energy, including renewable energies like solar, the Sunseap team believes that similar platforms would only pop up in time to come.
Going Beyond Local Rooftops
And it’s not just local rooftops that they’re installing the panels on – they’re also in Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, India, Malaysia, and Australia.
Of course, expanding overseas also comes with its own set of problems, especially when it comes to how the business climates are structured.
“Projects outside of Singapore typically take more time to structure.”
“Varying electrical tariff rates and rate structures, regulatory environment, counter-party credit worthiness, just to name a few, in various countries are some specific examples of challenges when it comes to developing, pricing, and financing these projects.”
But their end goal isn’t just profit-driven – they also want to bring electricity to rural areas in developing countries.
“Our projects which we have an interest in include a 10 MegaWatt-peak (MWp) solar farm in Cambodia, in Bavet City, Svay Rieng, and a 140 MWp solar farm in India, in the state of Rajasthan. We are currently developing about more than 300 MWp of projects in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.”
An Open Concept Office With No Barriers To Communication
With a strong focus on innovation, as evident from their projects and constant push to go further in providing consumers affordable solar energy, their office is also open-concept in a bid to encourage the sharing of ideas.
There are no physical boundaries between co-workers – everyone seats in the common working area, including Lawrence and myself.
“With the physical barriers removed, employees work in teams, be it departmental teams, or cross-departments teams that are formed according to project demands. That way, employees’ exposure is not limited. The involvement of employees from varying departments often brings us a new perspective to the problem presented.”
With a good majority of their staff coming from Gen Y (1980s-early 90s), and the remaining belong to Gen X, they found that employees in general “want to work in an environment where they are free to give and receive feedback on their performances. They also want to be listened to, and to be held in high esteem”.
However, as not everyone is at mark-to-market salaries, in the long run, we intend to compensate selected outstanding performers through share options in the company.
Other than tangible rewards like shares and salary increments, they also provide incentives like employee bonding sessions, annual townhall meetings, flexi-hours, and so on.
“We want all our team members to know that each and every one of them is an important member of Sunseap.”
“Nobody is less or more significant than another. While it may be challenging for us to compete in terms of tangible compensations, we do our best to take care of our employees, by understanding their various needs and motivations.”
With their journey just starting, they’re now hiring for positions in business development, energy retail, monitoring and marketing.
So what’s a tip that potential interview candidates should take note of?
Shared Lawrence, “We look for a cultural fit, and people with good attitude and the drive to learn. Whilst job scope and past experiences are important, given our new businesses, it isn’t always the case where a new hire has the exact same experience as per the job description.”
To Engineer Hopefuls: “Don’t Limit Yourself”
Ending off the interview, I asked the duo what they’d advise engineering graduates who are mulling a career in the clean energy industry – given that it’s still a relatively less traditional path to take.
For Frank, exploring the many facades of the industry is the way to progress:
The energy industry is a very big field, do not limit yourself to just one area. Most importantly, you need to step out to try the areas you are interested, and look for opportunities to refine your skills.
We’d like to thank Lawrence, Frank and the Sunseap team for their time! To find out more about them and their projects, follow their Facebook page here.
This article is written in collaboration with engineroom.sg.
Featured Image Credit: Asia for Good, Sunseap