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For factory, solar power runs show

Construction workers fit water pipes at Star8’s showroom near its factory in Por Sen Chey district earlier this month
Construction workers fit water pipes at Star8’s showroom near its factory in Por Sen Chey district earlier this month. Vireak Mai

For factory, solar power runs show

Resembling a giant Rubik’s cube under construction, the solar-powered factory in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district will be completely off the grid.

Some 1,350 solar panels, each one capable of generating 100 watts per hour of sunlight, cover the three-story building. In a few months, an indoor assembly line will start churning out a slew of products – from solar-powered tuk-tuks to solar glass panels – that mark the next step in Cambodia’s slow-to-diversify manufacturing industry.

The owners, from Australia-based technology company Star8, anticipate that in a given shift, the factory will only need about 80 per cent of the energy generated daily.

“We have too much power already,” said Quentin Peng Khim So, the Cambodian partner, looking out over a roof soon to be fitted with solar tiles, which will save the company thousands in electricity fees.

While one solar-powered factory won’t solve Cambodia’s problem of high energy costs, in a country heavily reliant on energy imports from neighbours, the alternative is a welcome initiative.

Excess energy could also be used to power neighbouring factories, said Rehan Kausar, senior energy specialist at the Asia Development Bank.

“They would also be possibly eligible for carbon finance credits due to the mitigation impact of using solar energy on climate change,” he said.

The canopy sheltering a parking lot in front of the site is fitted with solar tiles, and the product showroom across the road is adorned with solar glass panels. The entire site has the capacity to generate up to 200,000 watts per day. Even the street lights run on the sun.

Cambodia will be the first manufacturing hub for Star8, with plans for additional production facilities in Vietnam and Malaysia.

The Phnom Penh site, due for completion in late February, will employ 150 to 250 local staff.

Star8 managing director Jacob Maimon expects the factory to operate at full capacity by the end of May.

Tax benefits for export and inexpensive labour help make Cambodia an attractive location, but bringing solar technology to the developing world, where the sector is still in its infancy, is one of the company’s goals.

“I believe strongly that we will do great here with our products,” he said.

Star8 will join the list of investors, like Japanese electronic-parts manufacturer Minebea, and Japanese auto parts manufacturer Yazaki, that represent a step forward for Cambodia’s garment-reliant manufacturing. The solar-powered tuk-tuk will be among the first products manufactured. Parts will be made in Cambodia and shipped all over the world for assembly, beginning with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, with further expansions planned in Africa.

The company has inked a contract to outfit a solar residential estate in Malaysia, an agreement that will also include solar cars for rent. It’s working on retrofitting sites for an international fast food chain, and back in Australia, Star8 has a partnership with one of the country’s largest providers of building products to distribute their solar tiles.

But as solar power is still developing, so is the commercialization of all-solar vehicles, according to professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University, in Melbourne.

“They are generally hybrid systems with batteries that are partially charged by electricity from power points and partially solar,” he said.

For Star8’s Australia-based design team, a range of solar vehicles are in the pipeline: motorbikes, cars, delivery vans and even a solar-powered truck capable of driving 180 kilometres on a full battery.

All vehicles will have a plug-in back up option for recharging, but solar power is the primary source, according to Star8 general manager Phil Stone.

The mix of innovation is what makes Star8 products unique, he said: “It’s a bit like having a Lego kit,” Stone said. “Some make a house, others will make a car or a robot.”

In the most futuristic of plans, Star8 is constructing a solar road in Phnom Penh that the company hopes to have on display as a model before the opening of the factory. The technology - made from slip-resistant engineered glass - can potentially power street lights or even homes along the way, and assess a car’s speed while providing directions via coloured signals.

Explaining all the creations, Star8’s managing director, Maimon, brings up one of the earliest adoptions of solar technology - the solar-powered calculator.

“If it can work in a small way, it can work in a big way,” he says.

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