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Sunseap sets sights on the region

Sunseap founder Frank Phuan (above) now recounts the ins and outs of his business with enthusiasm, but there was a time when he did not fancy having a career in the solar energy business
Sunseap founder Frank Phuan (above) now recounts the ins and outs of his business with enthusiasm, but there was a time when he did not fancy having a career in the solar energy business. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Singapore's biggest renewable energy provider eyeing Philippines, Indonesia next

Solar energy entrepreneur Frank Phuan has had a frantic 12 months but his efforts have seen his firm Sunseap Group take big steps towards becoming a regional player.

Mr Phuan, 39, told The Straits Times: "The last couple of years, we've been pretty Singapore-centric, building up solar energy as a common alternative energy Singapore can have. But this year, we spread our wings outside of Singapore."

Now, Sunseap, already Singapore's biggest renewable energy provider, has offices in Malaysia, Thailand, India, Australia and Cambodia, while eyeing the Philippines and Indonesia as the next stops.

These efforts have borne fruit. In India, for instance, Sunseap won a 140-megawatt tender in Rajasthan through a joint venture in January.

"It took us four years to build up that much capacity in Singapore," notes Mr Phuan, the firm's founder and director.

"The pilot phase of our Thai project is already 50 to 100 megawatts. So you can imagine that the scale of regional demand is much larger than what we do here.

"All these happened only after we reached the inflection point of achieving grid parity projects in Singapore, and we're eager to showcase that elsewhere. Then we'll be truly living up to our name - not many people know that Sunseap stands for South-east Asia Pacific."

Achieving grid parity means that an alternative energy can be offered at a price equal to or cheaper than what is provided by the traditional electricity grid.

This was a challenge in the past as most neighbouring countries provide energy subsidies, putting alternative energy at a price disadvantage. But advances in technology have continued to reduce the cost of solar energy infrastructure, Mr Phuan notes.

"One aspect of it is storage. We can use storage technology to mitigate intermittency of solar energy and enable peak-shaving," he adds, referring to the use of stored solar energy to reduce the consumption spike of a building at a particular time.

Mr Phuan recounts the ins and outs of his business with the tone of an excited engineer, but there was a time when he did not fancy having a career in engineering or even the solar energy business, despite the fact that it runs in the family.

His late father, Mr Phuan Pui Jong, founded Compo Enterprises in the 1970s, one of Singapore's earliest solar energy system manufacturers. The senior Mr Phuan had always hoped his son would follow in his footsteps.

At his father's behest, Mr Phuan studied materials engineering at the Nanyang Technological University, majoring in semiconductors.

"I went to NTU in 1997 and materials engineering was the flavour of the moment. But it really wasn't my thing." So after university, Mr Phuan decided to start a business venture in the marketing and sales of consumer electronics.

"I'm very proud to say that the business, now mainly managed by my partner, has evolved into a full-fledged marketing firm with over 40 employees."

But the family ties proved too thick to sever. In 2000, Mr Phuan and his father founded Sunseap Enterprises, a successor firm of Compo, a move that marked his entry to the solar energy business.

Together with long-time friend Lawrence Wu, Mr Phuan pioneered the business model of selling solar energy as a service in Singapore after seeing the viability of the fee-based service approach, following their firm's successful showcase installation at the German European School here in 2006.

"Instead of having our clients pay for the equipment upfront, we take over the risks and sell the power as a service, just like a regular electricity provider. Consumers can pay as they use, and that really helped proliferate the use of solar energy in Singapore," he says.

Mr Wu and he founded Sunseap Group in 2011 to grow the leasing business. Sunseap Enterprises remains a family-owned company outside the group.

Since then, the group has been involved in several landmark solar projects in Singapore, such as the 9.5-megawatt facility at the Jurong Port. The roof-top installation is the world's largest port-based solar energy facility.

The company also made headlines last December after winning the tender for SolarNova, a 76-megawatt public-sector project to be completed by late next year.

"In terms of solar leasing and energy retail revenue, the group did over $3 million last year. We expect to hit $30 million in the next 12 months," Mr Phuan said.

Sunseap, now with close to 80 employees, is looking to get listed, ideally sometime next year, he adds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'Sunseap sets sights on the region'. Print Edition | Subscribe