At this year’s Intersolar Europe conference in Munich pv magazine met Gregory Lukens, the new Director of Utility Europe for Ginlong Technologies brand Solis. He discussed his background in solar energy and how the company plans to build its footprint on the scale of European electricity.
pv-lehti: Thank you for your time today, Gregory. When did you join Solis?
Gregory Lukens: Three months ago.
Can you tell me a little about your experience before joining Solis?
Lukens: I’m an old dog and have been up to a few tricks over the years. For the last 20 years I have been working in Madrid, Spain and during that time I have been working on solar power. I don’t think I’m one of the earliest pioneers in Spain, but we were among the first to try to do business back in the day.
Was it in project development?
Lukens: At that time it was project development, especially in the commercial and industrial sector (C&I). We did various projects including shopping malls and IKEA installations. I had founded a company called OpcionDos with Spanish partners in 2011. In 2011 we were acquired by the German company AEG Power Solutions, which marked my entry into the world of utility-scale solar energy.
AEG Power Solutions was involved in the manufacture of central inverters in various locations such as Germany, South Africa, India and the United States. However, there were significant bankability challenges associated with their operation. Later, I joined PV Hardware (PVH), a well-known international tracking company. They had acquired a startup in California and asked me to help Europeanize the company, which was an ironic twist given my American background. This marked the beginning of a new chapter for PVH.
After spending a few years at PVH, I was hired by KACO, a German inverter manufacturer that was later acquired by Siemens. My role was mainly for their European business, but I was also involved in their North American operations as they were headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.
In 2018, I joined Huawei Spain when the company decided to enter the solar energy business. Until then, Spain struggled with a moratorium and numerous challenges, resulting in little activity in the solar industry.
Lukens: The solar tax, and then, in 2017, the government launched a tender for 4 GW and they announced the winners, and that’s when Huawei said, “Oh, I think there’s a market there now.” And that’s when the company started, so I was part of the original team of five or six people.
And how did you decide to switch to Solis?
Lukens: While working with Huawei, I gained experience in several global markets, including Spain, Chile, Australia and Mexico. Solis offered me an exciting opportunity and I appreciate their focus on their core business. Unlike some other companies, Solis remains dedicated to string inverters and does not venture into other areas such as chargers. This focus fits well with my approach.
Where do you think the competition between string and central inverters is at the moment?
Lukens: Personally, I’m not a fan of central inverters. They often bring with them numerous challenges and problems. In contrast, I strongly believe in the benefits of string topology, as it offers superior reliability, performance, and operational and maintenance benefits. Solis shares this vision and strives to support the deployment of string topology at utility scale, which is widely recognized as the optimal solution by advanced and forward-thinking companies.
In addition to inverters, what other components are important in electrical scale projects?
Lukens: While the inverter is an integral part, there are other pieces to the utility scale. These include telecommunications equipment, such as power plant controllers, and medium voltage substations.
What are your priorities and areas of focus as the director of Solis as Utility Europe?
Lukens: At the moment I am focusing on completing the certification of our existing machines in other European markets. This process will be completed in the coming months. In addition, I am working on the pieces of the puzzle I mentioned earlier, which include telecommunications equipment and medium voltage substations. At this stage, I am not actively involved with sales, but rather focus on doing the groundwork and hiring the right salespeople. We aim for quick profits where customers only need inverters.
Does Solis already have electricity-scale sales and ongoing projects in Europe?
Lukens: Currently, Solis has no electricity-scale sales or ongoing projects in Europe. Although the company has successfully developed electrical businesses in China, India and the US, it had not previously hired an executive to lead expansion in Europe. My role is to change that by building expertise, promoting dialogue with our Chinese colleagues and ensuring that Solis becomes a significant player in the European electricity scale market.
What are the challenges on the R&D side of utility-scale solar?
Lukens: I think we should consider adding an additional layer of software to improve our offering. This layer could include data analysis, visualizations and predictive modeling to optimize performance and predict failures. While this may be considered for 2024-25, we need to differentiate ourselves beyond the hardware. While hardware innovations such as new materials or improved integration with customers’ SCADA systems are opportunities, the focus should also be on software improvements.
Finally, how does bankability differ when moving from umbrella projects to public utility projects?
Lukens: Bankability is a critical consideration when it comes to utility-grade solar. The market for useful services includes professional buyers and strict control from procurement departments. ESG requirements are increasing, and projects are being thoroughly evaluated by stakeholders, including buyers and project banks. Solis has an excellent opportunity in this market, as our strong investment in spring inverters fits well with the expectations and demands of customers in the electrical industry.