Episode #010 - Radovan Kopecek
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Episode #010 with Torsten Brammer & Radovan Kopecek:
We're back with another episode of The Solar Journey podcast with Torsten Brammer! This week, in episode #010, Torsten speaks with Radovan Kopecek, Co-founder and Director of ISC Konstanz.
Dr. Radovan Kopecek, born in Brno (former Czechoslovakia), obtained his Diploma in Physics at the University of Stuttgart in 1998 in the field of Superconductive Fullerides. In addition, he studied for one year at Portland State University (Oregon, USA) where he obtained a Master of Science degree in 1995. During his studies, he worked at the Max-Planck-Institut (MPI) and at the Institute of Physical Electronics (IPE) in Stuttgart as a research assistant in the field of crystalline Si for PV applications. He joined Professor Ernst Bucher´s group in 1998 for his Ph.D. dissertation, which he completed in November 2002 in the field of Thin-Film Silicon Solar Cells.
One of the founders of ISC Konstanz Dr. Kopecek is working as a full-time manager and researcher since January 2007 and is currently the leader of the advanced solar cells department dealing with novel cell technologies. He is responsible for several European and national research projects. Since 2017 he is a board member of EUREC and from 2018 on a founding member of AtaMoS-TeC in Chile. The overall goal is to turn Germany´s energy supply to 100% solar and other renewable energy resources until 2030 and to assist other countries with the same goal. 70TW PV till 2050 is possible.
Connect with Radovan on LinkedIn.
Speaker 1 (00:17)
Welcome, everybody, to a new episode of The Solar Journey. Today we have a new guest. It's Radovan Kopecek. Welcome.
Speaker 2 (00:28)
Speaker 1 (00:30)
Yeah. So Rado was born in Brno. Back then, it was a city in Czechoslovakia. Now in the Czech Republic, he studied science in Germany and in the United States of America. In 2002, he got his Ph.D. in the city of Konstanz in Germany in the field of thin-film crystalline photovoltaics. Until the end of 2006, he was a group leader at the University of Constance. That's in Southern Germany, close to Switzerland, beautiful area, close to Austria. At the beautiful Lake of Konstanz in Germany.
Speaker 2 (01:13)
Can you see it.
Speaker 1 (01:17)
Too Sunny day. Yes, much of a sunny day. He's one of the co-founders and now managing director of IsC Konstanz. ISC Konstanz was founded in 2005, and it's a nonprofit organization with round about 60 employees. And this Institute focuses on solar cell research and global technology transfer. And in addition, since 2016, Rado is also on the board of directors of the association of European RMD Centers, involved in renewable energy research. And on top, he's a co-founder of ATAMOSTEC. That's an R and D Center for desert solar modules and systems in Chile, South America. So as you can see, he's a real solar cell techie with a global mindset almost all of his professional life. He's very active on LinkedIn if you want to see what he's up to. But also you can meet him on almost all conferences on solar energy on this planet. And also not really you can find him on stage of those conferences as a session chair. So, again, very welcome. Warm welcome to you.
Speaker 2 (02:41)
Thank you very much Torsten for this great invitation and to be able to talk about my favorite topic, which is photovoltaic, actually.
Speaker 1 (02:58)
So let us know, why did you get started in solar in the first place?
Speaker 2 (03:04)
In the first place? Yeah, because I needed money. As you already mentioned, I studied physics in the US and in Germany. And when I came back after my masters in Oregon state, I actually needed money to continue my studies because I did not feel ready to be a physicist. And at that time, a very good friend of mine was working at Max Planck Institute together, and I just needed money. So I contacted them and wanted to work for them. And actually at the beginning, they were not looking for anybody, but I was quite stubborn and pushy. So finally they took me and yeah, it was a great experience to start to work in PV in 1995. So I'm already in since 26 years.
Speaker 1 (04:20)
Excellent. But you also continued, right, in solar.
Speaker 2 (04:26)
Yeah. So that was actually the start. And then I enjoyed it very much because I already felt at that time that it's a very important technology. And at that time I did not do my diploma study in solar but in superconductor technology. And that was also interesting. But I felt that I need to do something for something practical that it also makes sense to develop in the future. And that's why I left Stuttgart after my diploma, went to Constance, and started my Ph.D. And that was extremely interesting, not only because of the science but during that time, you know that the politics were involved in the so-called feeding tariff and these were more or less like the start of successful implementation of the Oval bike. So I continued and then 2005 we found it ISC Constance, because there was a big need for a platform to work closely with the industry and at that time were machine builders like needed assistance for development of new cell concepts. And that's how it all started.
Speaker 1 (05:55)
Excellent. So you already mentioned ISC, the Institute, the nonprofit organization you work for. You were also a co-founder. So who exactly are your customers?
Speaker 2 (06:11)
So these days our customers are mostly machine builders and solar cell and module producers abroad, which are for example in India, Adani or in China, SPIC, which is the largest electrical company in China working on renewables. So not the largest in production but in implementation of renewables. And they have chosen our technology for production of high efficient solar cells. So in general, machine builders from Europe and producers outside of Europe.
Speaker 1 (06:51)
And currently you would say India is the largest market for you?
Speaker 2 (06:57)
Currently I would say it's 50/50 India and China. But now it seems that India is becoming a huge market with these incentives that India started a couple of months ago. And yes, there are new customers popping up like Reliance, maybe Avada, ESL. This could be quite interesting in the future.
Speaker 1 (07:30)
So why do they hire you? As I understand, you do research on solar cell technology, you do technology transfer, why do they need you? Why don't they rely on equipment builders or their own technology team? What's the value you bring to your customers?
Speaker 2 (07:51)
Yeah, that's different from customer to customer, but mostly is concerned is quite valuable, let's say for newcomers. And of course they could hire Chinese equipment suppliers because they are like ten years ago in Germany, the German machine builders were offering turnkey solutions like for example, and this is not what the Chinese are doing. But the Indian companies sometimes are not very well connected to China or let's say do not want to cooperate with the Chinese. This depends on the customers. Other customers in India, they love to buy low-cost Chinese equipment, but I would say 80% of the Indian customers these days are looking for different solutions Besides of China. And then of course, ISC Constance is quite knowledgeable in technology transfer. So that's why they select us.
Speaker 1 (09:01)
So the business model, you basically sell your time you spend with the customers or do you include a certain license because you have a certain know half a specific sale type? What do they pay for?
Speaker 2 (09:22)
Yeah. So at the beginning of ISC Constance in 2005, our business model was completely different and then after the production diffused to China, we had to change our business model. So at the beginning our business model that we were serving existing customers in Germany or in Europe like Bosch, solar world, Sunways there was also production in Constance in the past and our business model then was to also rent our equipment.
Speaker 2 (10:00)
End so they could go to ISC Constance and use our pilot line. Then when, let's say the production diffused to China, to Asia. Then we completely changed our business model and we bought with all the patents that we commonly developed with Porsche and we're going into technology transfer. Our first customer was still in Europe, mega sale in Italy. So what we are doing at the moment, we have always two contracts that we negotiate with the customer. One is for the technology transfer and one for licenses and licenses we can still get from the customers because our technologies are, let's say, slightly different from the state of the art on the market, which is perk. But we are, let's say selling technologies beyond perk.
Speaker 2 (11:04)
Okay. Excellent. So it's two revenue streams. One is the consulting aka technology transfer. And the other one is recurring revenue through licenses.
Speaker 1 (11:18)
Speaker 2 (11:20)
Interesting. Cool. So the longer they produce, the more they produce, the more money you get. That's the way it works.
Speaker 1 (11:29)
Speaker 1 (11:30)
Is it a flat rate revenues?
Speaker 2 (11:32)
But let's say the Asian customers, they pay the license fees upfront. And this is also what they like more because let's say it's easier for them to plan what they have to pay for the technology.
Speaker 2 (11:51)
Okay. It's a lump sum in the beginning.
Speaker 2 (11:53)
Exactly, in the beginning. And let's say within the half a year that we are on-site, there are special payments for the license fee. So it's not everything upfront, but depending on how fast we proceed, then the other payments are.
Speaker 1 (12:13)
Okay. Excellent. So for how long do you usually stay involved? Is it half a year or is it typical involvement?
Speaker 2 (12:22)
I mean, the planning starts before we go on-site, but from the beginning, when we go on-site to, let's say the final approval of the efficiency is about half a year. But also the customer like to do with us in future our RND project. They do not buy technology and then believe because they are asking from the beginning for upgrades. So if we offer a technology, we have to show them a road map, how they can go to higher efficiencies in future. And this is mostly them related with an RND contract.
Speaker 1 (13:03)
Okay. And that's usually like customized per customer, a special technology path. Okay. So the customer needs to be kind of knowledgeable at some stage to decide which path you want to follow.
Speaker 2 (13:20)
Exactly. So they hire specialists that evaluate our proposals.
Speaker 2 (13:27)
Speaker 2 (13:29)
Owner of engineers that are selecting, let's say the proposals also from other companies.
Speaker 1 (13:38)
How many people go on-site? So you roughly have 60 employees. That means that some of your engineers stay on site for half a year in India, China somewhere.
Speaker 2 (13:52)
So we have always one responsible for the project, like the project manager and then see mostly stays really for the full six months. And then we have specialists on different technologies and then they travel back and forth. Let's see, a typical duration for one specialist, for example, for screen printing is about two months on-site and then there's a change of our people there. So all in all, there are always five to seven people on site.
Speaker 1 (14:34)
Okay. Excellent. And they share a flat and have a good time overseas?
Speaker 2 (14:41)
Yeah, that depends on the location, of course.
Speaker 1 (14:44)
Speaker 2 (14:45)
Normally they have fun. Yes.
Speaker 1 (14:49)
What's the favorite location for your engineers?
Speaker 2 (14:53)
Yeah, we might have a project on Maritzus.
Speaker 1 (14:57)
Oh, wow. Okay. So everybody's lining up to go there.
Speaker 2 (15:03)
Exactly. We will not have problems to find volunteers, I guess.
Speaker 1 (15:07)
Okay. And in the past, when you look back, what was the sweetest city or place you stayed in?
Speaker 2 (15:17)
Yeah, that really depends on individual people that like the site. But I think Italy was quite nice to work at.
Speaker 1 (15:28)
Speaker 2 (15:29)
Also because Frank Otravelzo was very general and he was very often inviting people for dinner and having parties.
Speaker 1 (15:40)
Speaker 2 (15:41)
It really was quite nice.
Speaker 1 (15:44)
Excellent. So what are the typical challenges for you in a project? What would you say is the key challenge for your work?
Speaker 2 (15:58)
Yes. So we already mentioned it. So sometimes, for example, if we have a transfer in China, in Shining, which is actually an extremely interesting place. But of course our people have families and other duties. So it's always quite difficult to make the planning of the stay. And then, you know, the situation in PV, it very often gets postponed, but you have to do the planning beforehand and then you have changed completely. So the logistics behind the technology transfer is not very easy to have, let's say all the team being available all the time.
Speaker 1 (16:44)
Yeah, I can imagine. And one interesting thing about ISC Constance is it's a nonprofit organization. Why did you choose that type of legal body?
Speaker 2 (17:03)
Yeah, that was quite easy at the time, I would say because in 2005 there were so many companies that just wanted to make profit after insolvencies, they just left the field and went to another company. But we just wanted to show that ISC Constance is different and that we really stand behind the technology. And this was also very well seen from all the other companies, like from the machine builders, that there are really a team of people that do not want to fill their pockets with the subsidies to really make the institute rich. So we are making profit, of course, even if we are a nonprofit organization, but the profit flows into the corporation.
Speaker 1 (18:02)
What does it exactly mean? A nonprofit. Right. So you make profit but then you have to reinvest it or there are no dividends for the owners.
Speaker 2 (18:12)
Speaker 1 (18:14)
What's exactly the difference between a private company and a nonprofit organization? So at the end of the money there's 1 million left. Let's say, usually you would keep the cash to be prepared for bad times as a company or you would say let's share the 1 million among the shareholders. And how do you go about it? You guys, of course, make get a salary, right.
Speaker 2 (18:41)
We get a salary, which is not as good as in the industry.
Speaker 1 (18:45)
Speaker 2 (18:46)
So if we have more money at the end of a year, we are planning to invest it into our Institute, buying new equipment or for example, now you mentioned that we are 60 people, but it seems that in future will be rather 70 to 80. So we are thinking about expansion and so we have to rather build some floors on top of our Institute or change the building. So buy a new building and new equipment and this is what we are doing. So the money really stays within the Institute and not that we pay more for the directors so that they can drive a Tesla.
Speaker 1 (19:42)
So you're trying to find more people and a specialist in solar and tech. So that's usually difficult these days. What do your employees appreciate? They are kind of employees. Right. So what makes you an attractive employer? Is that important, that nonprofit aspect, or what's the key attraction for you as an employer?
Speaker 2 (20:14)
Yeah, the key attraction is certainly and it was from the beginning the location. So we don't have any problems to get some people to Constance because it's really a beautiful place close to the mountains at the Lake, very close to Switzerland and Austria, as you mentioned before.
Speaker 1 (20:35)
Speaker 2 (20:36)
But of course, the other aspect is that we hire for passion. And I think this is what the people really can feel from us from the beginning that we are not the ones that are filling our pockets but really want to move something because we work very close to the industry and this is what many of people share with us the passion to actually see their developments in PV systems out there. And from the beginning, we were betting on bifaciality and on end type technologies. And I think it was a good forecast from us because this is happening at the moment.
Speaker 1 (21:19)
Yeah, almost ended, right, exactly.
Speaker 2 (21:22)
And we were fighting for many years for that. And so I would say at the moment it's the location and also the passionate people at our Institute that are attracting other passionate people.
Speaker 1 (21:40)
Fantastic. So you're a founder, you're a managing director. There's hardly any training for this. So you just did it. So what was the driver to do? That right. You could have said, well, I'm looking for I'm going to join equipment maker. Right. And work on solar, work on tech there. What was the driver to say, “Well, I'm going to do my own thing together with similarly passionate people about solar”?
Speaker 2 (22:15)
Yes. I must admit I'm not a typical founder. And if I would not be surrounded by people like Christian Peter and Peter Fat at the beginning, I would not dare to make this step. So at the beginning, I was hoping that the others know what they are doing and they really made it very well and I mean we had good connections already at the University of Constance and the push came also from the machine builders and they were actually asking us for making this step. But anyhow I was not the one not the driver behind this. It was definitely Christian Peter, Peter Fat, and Echo, these three people that were pushing it and also making the contracts. But let's say my strength is rather in technology and I'm not a fast thinker but what is my advantage for example is I think I'm quite creative and I can remember things.
Speaker 1 (23:31)
Speaker 2 (23:32)
And it's important to remember things in photovoltaics what I've been tried already a couple of years ago and what worked and whatnot. So this is what makes me, let's say a good director now of ISC Constance, not at the beginning, but now I am becoming more and more important in this company.
Speaker 1 (23:56)
So when you look back, what were the key lessons? The biggest fails, the biggest lessons as a managing director, maybe head of technology, new advanced concepts or just people skills, anything. Right. What was the key learning?
Speaker 2 (24:18)
The key learning is that if you believe in something you really have to fight for it even if it seems that it's going nowhere. And we had really bad times at ISC Constance where the liquidity was so bad that we had to get new fresh money from the bank and trying to convince them that it will be better in the future. And yes, they were really difficult times. I think the learnings are that it's good to have a team of directors and this is very special about ISC Constance. I would say we have six directors and we are all quite good friends but also very complimentary. So there is a positive one and there's a negative one and one who likes to read the contracts. So we have a great team and it's sometimes hard to discuss with five people and to come to an agreement. But I think that was the key for success of ISC Constance that we actually spread it the work on six shoulders and all have the same power.
Speaker 1 (25:51)
Okay, excellent, wonderful. So how did you develop your management skills? How do you optimize your day-to-day work? Right. Did you get any training or did you read any books? How do you improve your skills?
Speaker 2 (26:14)
I didn't read a book about it but we are having monthly trainings for this, mostly how to deal with our stuff because I think ISC Constance is very good about bringing technology to the market, about technology. So all the directors that are actually the highest level, they are physicists or chemists and they do know what the people are doing, which is not always the case in a company. Normally you hire a CEO and he doesn't very often know anything about what the people are doing. But our weakness is really let's say still management and maybe not to motivate the people but to take care of our stuff more. This is what I would say is our weaknesses and this is what we are practicing frequently.
Speaker 1 (27:24)
Okay. How do you do it? Do you have an external coach or do you just talk about it among the six directors?
Speaker 2 (27:30)
Exactly. We have an external coach. But this is extremely important because if we would talk between us, I think we will not come to a conclusion on this topic at least. So we have an external coach and we meet also tomorrow on Saturday to discuss these topics. For example, what new challenges will come to ISC Constance when we increase from 60 people to 80 or maybe 90 because this is really a big structural step because when you have 60 people you still know more or less everyone what everyone is doing. But if you are 80, 90, then you have to completely reorganize and also make some official documents which were not in place before and so on. This is a big step.
Speaker 1 (28:20)
Excellent, fantastic. So let's move to the outside we talked about. What's on your mind business wise when you think about the solar industry?
Speaker 2 (28:43)
Yes. So as I told you, we started with serving German companies and then we had to change our business plan to serve Asian companies and to make technology transfer outside of Europe. But now it seems that PV is coming home and that's also our slogan. We assist investors or let's say companies that would like to restart production in Europe very strongly with technology. And also we talk to politicians and try to create a working environment in Europe so that it will work again. And I'm quite sure it will because now PV became the king of energy markets. Actually the situation is much different than three or four years ago and similar to the car industry now PV will enter a terabyte market quite soon and we just cannot produce PV technology in one country or two countries like India and China. We must bring it back to Europe in order to really guarantee our ambitious goals for future.
Speaker 1 (30:01)
Why do you think that it won't work that solar sales, solar margins are only produced in let's say China. China has a market share of I guess something around 90, 95%. Why wouldn't that work?
Speaker 2 (30:15)
Yeah, I mean it's worked so far. I would say the capacity of cell module production these days is about 300 Giga. But of course everybody knows in PV it's now limited to 200 GHz because of the policy looking crisis. But for future, I mean you cannot rely on continuous shipments from Asia to install huge gigabytes systems in Europe. And we are entering now really we are still in an exponential growth of production and installation. And now when PV is the king of energy markets. Every country is now hungry for it. And this just does not work with production from one country only. And of course, China can produce at the lowest cost also because of, let's say, subsidized electricity for polycyclic production and things like that. But let's say, in addition, now you have to pay for the transportation cost, which rapidly increased in the last months. And one example is exactly the cost for a container couple of years ago were about $2,000, and now it shoots it up to $18,000. So this is adding costs to the module prices. I mean, they will go down again, but still, we need supply security in Europe, in every country actually, also in US.
Speaker 2 (31:55)
That's why local production and vertical production. I mean, you cannot rely on even one component that comes from Asia only. So we have to rebuild our supply chain in Europe and make our own modules.
Speaker 1 (32:14)
So to bring home, as you say, production, let's say more general to make sure that there is local production of solar modules in any parts of the world. What's the biggest obstacle to get that done? Is it technology? Is it supply chain of materials and equipment, or mindset, maybe finances, education?
Speaker 2 (32:48)
It depends, of course, on the country.
Speaker 1 (32:51)
Let's say Germany.
Speaker 2 (32:52)
Okay, Germany. I just wanted to say on Mauritius we have also different ranges that in Germany. In Germany, it's a mixture of, let's say banks being burned in the past with photovoltaic. So they do not trust the situation, of course, to start financing new projects again. And the other thing is that we have to rebuild our value chain again in Europe or what does it mean rebuild? We have to build it because like in 2005 or 2007 when PV was big in Europe, it was on a two-gigawatt scale. And now if we want to set up new productions, we have to do it on 20 to 40GB scales. So ten times more. So not rebuilding supply chain, we have to build a supply chain and this will be the most difficult part and it has to be the whole supply chain. So Poly Silicon wafers, we have to produce in Europe cells and of course, all the other components for modules like glass incapsulence and whatever. So we need a critical mass in Europe which will be about ten giga first. That really the glass producers will trust again in photovoltaic and will restart glass production in Germany again or in Europe again for photovoltaics.
Speaker 2 (34:33)
And then we can slowly grow. I believe that, let's say for future, for the future markets in 2030, I think we would need something like 100 Giga production in Europe which would be about 10% of the entire PV market.
Speaker 1 (34:57)
Cool! Efficiencies of solar cells have improved. The cost has come down dramatically by orders of magnitudes when we go back 10, 20 years. So a lot has happened maybe as the closing topic for our session, still, do you have anything else on your mind that needs to be done that needs to happen to get solar or in general, the renewables to the next level?
Speaker 2 (35:36)
Yeah, this is quite an interesting and important question which I cannot 100% answer because I mean, we are already at levelized cost of electricity numbers in Germany, let's say between three to four cent per kilowatt hour, and the Middle East regions already going down to $0.01 per kilowatt hour. So I would say this is already enough that we can compete with any other technology out there. But of course, we have to continue development. And as you know, there are new technologies on the map, like tandem solar cells, where we can go even with the efficiencies above 30%. These days we are with modular efficiencies between 21 and 22, but with tandems we could even go above 30%. But of course, the problem is reliability and cost. So I am quite sure that in the next five years we will go from per technology to other technologies like Topcorn and Heterojunction IBC, which is, let's say the next level of photovoltaics, reaching efficiencies of 23% and also having lower temperature coefficient, higher Bificiality, lower degradation, and so on. But from that point on, I am not quite sure when tandems will come on the market. And let's say from the economical point of view, it's not necessary because we will reach SEO.
Speaker 2 (37:26)
So electricity costs for PV below $0.01 per kilowatt hour, which is, let's say nobody can do it besides photovoltaic in future. But development will not be stopped. Maybe will be out there in the next 15 years as well. But there are still many challenges for these technologies.
Speaker 1 (37:56)
Yeah. So the Hamhurt Center in Berlin, they just recently announced that they are close to 30%, 29.8%. That's a wonderful result. But you mentioned the reliability. Do you work on postcards at ISC or is that you focus on Silicon only?
Speaker 2 (38:15)
Exactly. We were thinking about stepping in and also talked then with our advisory board, and we're coming to the conclusion that we should focus on Crystal and Silicon only on our specialty. But of course, we are cooperating with them as well. And then other companies like Total and Oxford PB to develop the bottom, the crystalline Silicon cell. And yes, they have announced a very nice efficiency. But I'm working now 25 years in photovoltaics and I know how difficult it is to bring innovations into the market. And then PV is a completely different industry branch than any other technology, I would say, because it's about reliability and you have to guarantee modular lifetimes for more than 20 years. And this is extremely difficult. And it does not only have to be proven in the laboratory, it has to be proven also in the field. And this takes a very long time. But I think tandem will come and we are now also organizing the second Tundram workshop that we launched last year. Now it's in fiber next year and they will discuss exactly these topics. When can we make tandem technologies bankable what is needed to be done in the future?
Speaker 1 (39:50)
Wonderful. Hey Rado, thanks a lot for your insight into ISC, your work as a manager, your learnings, and your insight into the solar industry. Thanks a lot for joining.
Speaker 1 (40:06)
Thank you for the invitation and let's push PV together into the market and hopefully also the European market. So I hope then that you can also help us with that in future.
Speaker 1 (40:21)
Sure. I'll do my best.
Speaker 1 (40:23)
Speaker 2 (40:24)