Sunseap CEO Frank Phuan gains additional muscle to develop solar power in Singapore and beyond

Sunseap’s much-anticipated initial public offering this year did not happen, but CEO Frank Phuan comes to this interview with game-changing news. The world’s fourth largest renewable energy producer EDP Renewables (EDPR) has just bought a massive slice of the home-grown solar energy company in a deal valuing Sunseap at SG$1.1 billion.

With access to the technology, expertise and financial resources of a global firm worth US$28 billion, Sunseap can take on larger, more complex projects. Not that it doesn’t already have an impressive list of accomplishments. Sunseap’s revenue last year was SG$145.2 million, nearly six times what it was in 2016. On top of developing solar systems in Singapore, it has expanded into Cambodia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

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The most significant milestone in the firm’s history, however, happened this October, when Sunseap announced that it, along with local and international partners, would be developing solar power systems in the Riau Islands, Indonesia. The project would generate the equivalent of 1 gigawatt (GW) of non-intermittent energy that would be piped back to Singapore through subsea power cables. If the Riau Islands project is successful, says Phuan, it will supply 25 per cent of the 4GW of low-carbon electricity imports, as stipulated by the Singapore government, by 2035. “That is substantial,” he stresses. “That’s the needle moving literally.”

The cross-border project allows Singapore to plug into the region for its clean energy needs. The island state itself does not have enough surface area to generate the required power, even if, according to Phuan, “it’s one of the densest solar cities in the world”.

“The desire to keep the start‐up culture will still be there, regardless of how many people we have, how many markets we’re in.”
Frank Phuan

Sunseap generated more than 147,200 megawatt hours (MWh) of solar electricity last year, powering 31,000 households, but the company is ever increasing its capability to produce. Constructed this year, its floating solar farm in the Strait of Johor, off Woodlands, for example, will add 6,000 MWh of clean energy to its annual stock.

Headcount, too, will increase, doubling from 250 at the start of the year to 500 by the end of 2021. The difficulty of obtaining foreign staff during the pandemic has led the firm to invest in locals, offering a generous starting salary and devising a career path to attract and develop talent. Says Phuan: “Traditionally, you need a degree to be an engineer. We’re carving a non-academic path, with work experience and training. Staff will not only be installing the solar systems, but also designing them.”

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Despite the size of his company, Phuan still thinks of Sunseap as a 10-year-old start-up. Says the 44-year-old: “The staff hot-desk. The tables are the same size; mine is no bigger than my intern’s. We sit in the open. The C-suite office accommodates eight people.” The culture is such that it’s all hands on deck during a crunch. When the company could not get foreign labour to work on its solar farm off Woodlands, its office workers pitched in. “One third of the installation was done by our office volunteers,” shares Phuan. “That spurred the thinking that we can build green infrastructure with our own two hands.”

He’s looking to enlarge Sunseap’s presence in the region without forgetting the company’s roots. “We’re planning to start a South Korea office and relook into Australia,” he lets on. “This injection of capital from EDPR will give us enough firepower for the next five years. But the desire to keep the start-up culture will still be there, regardless of how many people we have, how many markets we’re in. It’s in our DNA.”

  • PhotographyDarren Gabriel Leow
  • StylingAdriel Chiun
  • GroomingWee Ming using Laura Mercier
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