Rioglass Solar is capitalising on the budding rise of solar thermal applications to meet the ever-diversifying range of requirements across its global customer base
Writer: Matthew Staff
Project Manager: Thomas Arnold
One decade may not seem like a long time when it comes to global industry development, but in a solar energy market that sees significant evolution year-on-year, Rioglass Solar’s 10-year journey places it at the top of the sector.
Owned by Rioglass Laminar and Abengoa Solar, the Company has not just thrived virtue of its unrivalled products and market understanding but also via this intra-collaboration and subsequent global scale; enjoying presence points on six continents across Spain, USA, China, Israel, South Africa and Chile.
CSO, Jeroen Van Schijndel introduces: “Rioglass Solar formed via the separation of the parent Company’s solar mirror and automotive glass divisions in 2007. The first mirrors were produced at Rioglass Solar I at our 600,000 mirrors per annum Spanish facility a year later before the Rioglass Solar II plant increased our capacity in Spain a year later.
“2010 saw us awarded the largest ever global CSP (concentrated solar power) project, before the commissioning of a new plant in the USA doubled Group sales in 2011.”
South Africa in 2013, Chile in 2014 and China in 2016 have since compounded the Company’s rapid and concerted expansion ambitions, enveloping a series of product diversifications and strategic acquisitions to help complement Rioglass’ rise.
Now, catering for the provision of CPV mirrors, and all four major technologies of solar thermal solutions, the portfolio has been joined by business units across aforementioned CSP capabilities, solar thermal technologies for industrial application, parabolic troughs, central tower and linear Fresnel heliostat mirrors, and parabolic dishes.
“Across the board, Rioglass Solar has the best performing products that are bankable and trusted,” van Schijndel emphasises. “Almost all past competitors have eventually stepped out of this business as they could not compete. Most competitors we face now are new and still need to prove they have reliable products and to gain bankability.
“Rioglass Solar has a large group of patents enabling it to defend its in-house-developed technologies from copies, and we are locally present. Our wide network of plants enables us to offer clients the cheapest solution, reliable deliveries and local content if needed.
“But most unique and the motor behind it all is our staff and our partners; those who created all of this.”
While evidently impressive as standalone statistics, it is pivotal to fully understand the market and environment in which Rioglass Solar operates in order to entirely comprehend the complexities involved and the resultant triumphs of the business.
“The solar thermal market is divided into two main markets: electricity generation (large plants competing with all other generating technologies but with a clear advantage over other renewables like PV or wind through being dispatchable,); and the industrial applications which is still a market in its early stage,” van Schijndel explains. “Solar Thermal technology depends on direct sunlight, which implies that suitable regions are limited. In one way the current markets are still under development (e.g. Middle East and China) while on the other side there are still new potential markets such as Chile and Australia where the conditions need to be created to make this new technology possible.”
Due to the possibility of integrated storage solutions, the growth estimates for this market are tremendous, and Rioglass fully intends on capitalising. To do so though, there once again needs to be a clear understanding of the nuances between this new opportunity and more traditional renewables such as wind and PV, as well as a profound understanding of how the right mix can provide the best solution in each of the markets.
Van Schijndel continues: “Few outside the industry know this technology and thoroughly understand its differentiating qualities, such as 24-seven supply, and providing grid stability and ancillary services.
“However, it is our R&D and entrepreneurial spirit [to adapt to these trends] that has brought Rioglass Solar to where it is today. We have outlived a lot of our competitors by expanding into new markets, by localising our production and by always continuing to improve our products and technologies.”
New and improved
Rioglass Solar has traditionally enjoyed relationships with a select few professional business partners over the years; ensuring a seamless adherence to changing industry trends, and subsequently creating more value through considered, locally-driven investments.
The latest significant investment to this end has seen the Company unveil its new production plant in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China.
“This shows our commitment to serving existing and new customers in this rapidly developing market where there is a programme for 20 new projects ranging from 50 MW to 100 MW; soon to be followed by more projects based on China´s five-year plan for solar thermal,” van Schijndel details. “Besides that, Rioglass continuously invests in new and improved production equipment for example for very complex PV and solar dish mirrors as we did for an American customer for their projects in China where we manufactured mirrors for around 200 MW in generating CPV power.
“We were also the first to manufacture 80 and 90mm receivers for commercial plants for new types of troughs, called large aperture troughs.”
And behind each and every piece of research, and every innovative implementation, the Company turns to its loyal and skilled workforce who van Schijndel attributes as the real value creators within the business.
“When moving into new markets we bring highly-trained professionals with us to build the new plant and start production, but especially to train and qualify the newly hired staff,” he notes. “It is our goal to create at each location a core staff that is highly skilled but also committed to the Company; but with roots there. This way we create a stable, highly-reliable core of people that stay with the Company and help to create new value locally; but also help us to hire and train staff based on the projects being developed locally or in nearby markets.
“In a project-based industry you have to be flexible while relying on a group of people that consistently carry the Company’s DNA.”
Rioglass Solar’s resultant, key critical components directly affect the output of plants, thus making efficiency and durable products equally critical. As a result, a similarly prudent focus is applied to the formulation of the Company’s supply chain, once again placing localisation at the heart of the strategy, before ensuring there is an attitude and philosophy match in order to cement complete reliability and mutual satisfaction.
“Our global partners and transportation companies play a key role in the whole value chain to ensure a safe on-timely delivery of glass products and with good local roots to ensure we engage well with our customers,” van Schijndel affirms.
When all previous facets have been secured and optimised, it places Rioglass Solar in the perfect position to tackle the continuously evolving trends and demands of the solar energy sector. While operational excellence begins in the plants, trends begin in the market, and it is crucial that these two worlds are merged seamlessly to ensure long-term success.
“You have to be aware of your own market - your customers and your customers´ customers - but also of other industries that might impact your own market,” van Schijndel says. “The energy market for example is rapidly changing in some frontrunner countries and these trends cannot be stopped.
“Renewables will undoubtedly become the key energy source in the future, as it allows for clean, independent and cheap generation.”
Reliability is also key, and that is where solar thermal comes in, in facilitating the possibility of integrated solutions and round-the-clock generation; while also complementing intermittent renewables such as wind and PV. Admittedly expensive as an initial outlay, the respective economies of scale, technological efficiencies and project management undertones makes the overall concept more sustainable; and it is now down to companies like Rioglass Solar to harness the potential of solar thermal as effectively as possible.
“Solar thermal is recognised for its unique potential to provide stability to the electricity grid and is a serious competitor considered by the investment world and governments worldwide,” van Schijndel concludes poignantly. “Industry has seen its first successful commercial applications and companies are now looking at this technology as one of the sources of heat to secure their future.
“For Rioglass Solar, its investments and R&D activities will maintain its leading position for both solar thermal and optical components in CPV markets, having become a trusted partner for many industrial groups for their power projects and solar heat needs.