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The Peak Power List 2017: Frank Phuan

After reinventing his family's solar panel business, the co-founder and director of Sunseap Group is democratising solar power in the region.

Co-founder and director of Sunseap Group
YEARS IN OPERATION:
 11
THE TECH: The leading clean energy solutions provider in Singapore supplies solar power as a service.


In 2001, Frank Phuan joined his father’s solar panel manufacturing business, Sunseap Enterprises, as a fresh graduate with a degree in materials engineering from Nanyang Technological University. He lasted for only a year. Friction arising over “different management styles” saw the younger Phuan leaving the company to dabble in various entrepreneurial ventures, including the opening of a burger joint and a Japanese izakaya.

But in 2006, he returned to the family business. Finding it difficult to change his father’s views, he came up with a solution – selling solar energy as a service – that allowed him to run his own company, while purchasing solar panels from his father. He spent four years pitching the idea to the local authorities, before co-founding Sunseap Leasing with Lawrence Wu in 2011 to execute his concept. While a solar photovoltaic system costs up to $1.5 million for commercial premises, these fees are borne by Sunseap Leasing. Customers pay only for the electricity they consume. “As panels became more commonplace, it made sense to earn a recurring income by supplying solar power, rather than manufacturing panels to get a one-time revenue,” says the 40-year-old.

This innovative model has paid off in spades. Come next year, when the Energy Market Authority of Singapore fully opens up the electricity retail market to competition, residents in Singapore will have the unprecedented option to buy Sunseap’s solar-generated electricity via Singapore Power’s electrical grid – which receives energy from various power generation companies. As advances in technology continue to reduce the cost of solar infrastructure, Phuan is confident that Sunseap can offer renewable energy at approximately 20 per cent less than the price of power generated by traditional sources such as coal-fired plants.


“I am happiest on a hot sunny day, as this means the company is generating revenue.”


Supplying the nation with clean electricity is no mean feat. The company has taken over six years to build up its capacity by installing solar systems on 1,000 rooftops across commercial buildings, public housing estates, hospitals and more. Given its current production output and upcoming projects, Sunseap is on track to generate 200 of the 7,000MW of energy the country consumes monthly.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Phuan continues to evolve his business model. “Sunseap Leasing is focused on brokering long-term contracts to place solar systems on rooftops. Excess power that is not used by these buildings is diverted to Singapore’s electrical grid. We have a retail arm – Sunseap Energy – that buys this extra electricity before selling it to customers. This means that we can now sell power to buildings, regardless of whether they have panels installed.” One such customer is tech giant Apple, which draws 100 per cent of its local renewable energy needs from Sunseap.

In 2015, Sunseap Group was established as the holding company for Sunseap Leasing, Sunseap Energy and Sunseap International. Today, the company has a market capitalisation of $300 million and expects to generate a revenue of $50 million this year, double that of 2016. To achieve this goal, Sunseap is exploring options to install solar panels not just on surfaces of buildings but also over open spaces such as reservoirs, shares Phuan, who plans to list the company next year.

The company’s poised for growth in the region, where an existing partnership with Shell Technology Ventures sees both companies working on solar projects across the Asia-Pacific. Later this year, Sunseap will also expand into China via a joint venture with a Chinese partner. In a world grappling with climate change and income inequality, Phuan believes his business is able to provide affordable energy to developing countries.

“Solar power will allow an entire generation to gain quicker access to electricity, as compared to relying on a traditional power station which takes years to construct,” says Phuan. It took Sunseap just a few months to provide a village in Rajasthan with 140MW of power via a solar farm this year. He says: “Beyond pursuing profits, we want to use solar energy to make the world a better place.”

IN 60 SECONDS

I am happiest on a hot sunny day, as this means the company is generating revenue.

When I don’t want to be disturbed, I shut myself in the room and sleep.

I wish I could spend more time with my two-year-old son. Each time I return from a business trip, he would have grown so much and I’d have missed out on that part of his life.


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