Battery Chat : Energy Matters Interview With Sonnen’s Philipp Schröder

Sonnen - Philipp Schröder

More Australians are discovering German-made sonnen battery systems after a recent Channel 9 segment had many wanting to learn more about the world’s largest home battery company.

Energy Matters caught up with sonnen’s Managing Director last week to discuss the past, present and future of the residential energy storage star – and the many benefits in store for Australians eager to declare their energy independence.

EM: Tell us about the history of sonnen. How has the company evolved to become the world’s largest home battery storage company?

Philipp Schröder: sonnen was started in 2008-09 by two founders, Christoph Ostermann and Torsten Stiefenhofer, who developed the first prototypes. Christoph was a German engineer who had previously built and designed electric vehicles and already had his mind on solar and storage. He had the early idea that it would make sense to store electricity on-site. At that point in Germany it seemed absurd, as people were being paid a lot of money by the Government to feed electricity back into the network, but as we see today, it was a pretty good idea.

The first “real version” was launched on the market in 2010. The systems were different – the lithium chemistry wasn’t as sophisticated and there were no automation software capabilities. But sonnen was able to sell batteries to very early adopters in Europe who simply wanted to be independent with their energy production. So independence was everything!

Then sonnen evolved, with 100% growth year–on-year in last 5 years – so every year we doubled our output of battery units. Meanwhile, the company was continuously improving the battery’s technology. We had interest from big utilities in Germany and became a supplier to RWE, the second largest utility in Germany, as well as a couple of the nation’s largest solar companies.

But the major breakthrough really was when sonnen came up with the ability to have the PV system and battery communicate with each other. That was the moment the company changed from a hardware business in to a smart service (this was 2 years ago and deployed at the end of 2015 in Germany).

sonnen battery systems

Since then sonnen has welcomed about 20,000 people into the community who are feeding in electricity into our virtual power plant, sharing it. They are also allowing us to use their battery units as a virtual and very large storage facility to participate in the wholesale electricity market and also help stabilize the grid. Germany has a high penetration of solar and one of the main issues there was to make sure that the grid didn’t fail. So we help the grid operators ensure a successful transition to a renewable energy future.

This has now been scaled to US, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland – and now we are bringing the sonnenCommunity concept to Australia.

If you look at residential systems in 2016, we are leading the market in when it comes to units sold – ahead of our main competitors.

EM: Sonnen is one of the best quality batteries on the market and it’s been winning awards and investor interest in spades. What are some of the features customers in Australia should be aware of that make sonnen a great choice when it comes to home battery storage?

Philipp Schröder: First of all if you look at hardware; it is an all in one system. Just like you cannot compare apples and oranges, you cannot compare a sonnen system to other leading brands that offer just a battery – they leave the inverter to someone else, they leave the energy management to someone else. So if you buy one of these other systems you will have a different inverter brand to deal with, you will have a separate energy manager if you want any smart functionality – all this has to be bought separately by the customer or installer. This means you’ll have different warranty sets for all the components, rather than all in one system – as a customer you don’t want to deal with that.

With sonnen’s pricing we have included not only a better, more advanced battery technology with a much longer cycle life, but you also have an energy manager and inverter – all in one box. They are all covered by a 10 year warranty, all come pre-wired and if you have an issue you can turn to one manufacturer, rather than multiple product providers.

With sonnen you get a system that can shift and manage loads in your home, you have a weather data app built in so your battery asset is being optimized against real time data. For example, if the system knows that you are never home on Tuesday, it will act differently when the sun shines than it will if you are always home on Tuesday  – because it knows to first maximize your own consumption, rather than to feed into the grid.

So in a nutshell these are the advantages sonnen has that most people don’t even price in or realise.

sonnen solar battery

EM:  It’s an exciting next 6 months for Sonnen Australia with sonnenCommunity and sonnenFlat soon to be released. Can you tell us a bit more about these concepts and how sonnenCommunity is already working for thousands of home-owners in Germany? 

Philipp Schröder: sonnenCommunity means the sharing of electricity. If consumers become producers, why should they buy from utilities? sonnen uses the grid like every other electricity provider, but we use surplus electricity within the community to sell it within the community. So, for example, if you have one town where Maria is experiencing a deficit and Paul in another town has a surplus, we have an automated software platform that enables these users to match demand and production in a way to make them self-sufficient; cutting out the utility completely.

Sonnen Flat is an additional feature where customers of the community get free electricity. In return they grant us access to their storage unit in order to utilize it for wholesale and grid stabilization. For example, if you have a sonnen battery you will probably need it for charging and discharging around 6-7 hours a day. That leaves up to 18 hours that your battery, which you have already paid for, is available for other services. Sonnen has a very high cycle life so we have enough cycles available to enable you to participate in the electricity wholesale market and grid stabilization.

We cover the risk. We manage the wholesale and frequency regulation aspect, and in return you get access to free electricity. You don’t need to do anything except say whether you would like to be part of this or not and we also guarantee the warranty will remain intact.

This is very different to other battery makers – they don’t have the warranty aspect to ever participate in wholesale or frequency regulation because they don’t have the battery charge-discharge cycles available.

This is sonnenFlat, where customers say “I have a sonnen battery or I am just buying one and I would like to participate in sonnenFlat model”. And then they get access to free electricity! They get 100% saving – that’s the aim.

EM: Sonnen has been operating for over 7 years in Germany and has a huge customer base with 30,000 units sold globally to date. Having recently launched in the Australian market, what differences / similarities have you experienced?

Similarities:

Philipp Schröder:  Increasing frustration with Government and the utilities. People are sick of electricity prices going up. They want to support smart solutions. They are really open to form a utility that truly serves their individual needs. People are very frustrated with traditional energy utilities, but are still very open minded and they know something needs to be done to save the planet.

In both countries we’ve seen that people are happy for the opportunity to take their energy into their own hands – not as an island for themselves, but to connect with others to really change things and save money doing it.

Difference:

Philipp Schröder:  The main difference is simple. Australia has much more sun! I have a big grin on my face because I’m simply amazed by the opportunities you guys have! In some regions you have up to 300 days of sun a year! In Germany we have much much less. We are also much more affected by summer and winter.

EM: Sonnen has a high-calibre and very experienced global team. What’s the culture like at sonnen? What attracts people to the company? How do sonnen people and culture help deliver the quality and innovation expected from German cutting-edge technology?

Philipp Schröder: I think the biggest driving factor is our vision and mission. It is really about clean and affordable energy for everyone. There’s so much talk about this topic and so many politics, that young people come to us relieved because they just want to do something! They don’t want to be finger-pointing or moralistic, they simply want to offer an awesome, convenient product that will lower costs and do the right thing for the environment. I think this vision of really changing the energy market into a much more fair, innovative and just model for all is one of the key attractions to sonnen. In addition to this, our pace of innovation is extremely high.

So pace of innovation and vision are the key factors that attract great young talent all around the world to join sonnen.

EM: What do you see the energy market looking like in the next 2-3 years? What role do you see sonnen playing in this future?

Philipp Schröder: I think we will witness the foreseeable end of retail utilities within 2-3 years in the residential sector. If you generate your own energy, it’s more reliable, it’s cheaper, and it’s better for society. So there’s no reason at all to still have conventional electricity retailers if you simply produce your own.

That’s one trend, the other trend is short term – we see electricity prices in Australia continuing to rise. The wholesale market as opposed to last year went up 400% and this is going to touch down in many states on the first of July. This is going to penetrate into the tariffs of everyone in almost all states. People will be affected by the price increase, so there will be much more reason for them to act and make a choice.

In the not-too-distant future we will see the end of the conventional central utility – in its place the big utility will be a shared community.

Additional information:

Energy Matters has been installing quality solar + energy storage solutions such as sonnenBatterie Eco throughout Australia for much of our decade of operations – learn more about sonnen battery storage here or call our team on 133-SUN for further details and a tailored quote. A zero-deposit payment plan is also available in some areas – conditions apply.

Please note: the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Sonnen do not necessarily reflect the views of Energy Matters.