Solar battery producer facing export woes
(Photo: Joesph Wellington)

THE operator of Jamaica's sole assembly plant for solar batteries is becoming increasingly frustrated with the shipping industry's reluctance to transport its products to export markets, which has the effect of limiting the entity's ability to grow.

Brian Yap Sam, CEO of Green Concepts Jamaica, said the matter surrounds shipping companies' lack of education about the safety of the lithium batteries his company wants to ship.

"They just lump everything together once they hear the word lithium," Yap Sam told the Jamaica Observer in an interview and went on to explain that there are three main types of lithium batteries. Lithium-ion batteries, the most popular lithium batteries are considered dangerous by shipping companies, especially after it was determined that a March 2022 fire aboard a cargo ship carrying thousands of electric cars off the coast of Portugal was kept alive by the lithium-ion batteries in the cars.

The other lithium batteries are lithium-iron and lithium-NCM. Yap Sam says his company produces lithium-iron batteries. The company has been producing solar batteries for the past year. It was registered in 2020, just before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but no production was started until after the country was reopened for business as the impact of the virus waned.

One of the assembled solar batteries produced by Green Concepts Jamaica. (Photo: Joesph Wellington)

"We decided to go to lithium-iron because it is very safe," he argued. He is hoping that shipping companies will look into the matter and see the difference in both when it comes to safely transporting them.

"I had a meeting with someone recently who is talking to one of the shipping lines to give the company an exemption for the lithium-iron batteries since they are not the ones that are considered dangerous," he told the Caribbean Business Report.

He said shipping companies will bring in lithium-ion batteries fully assembled, but won't allow them on the ships for exports because of the fear of a fire. Since the March 2022 fire on the ship off the coast of Portugal, even Tesla — a US-based electric vehicle producer — has shifted from lithium-ion to the more powerful but safer lithium-iron batteries.

Yap Sam said when he decided to return to Jamaica to set up the company to produce the batteries, he went through Jamaica Promotions Corporation (Jampro) "to ensure I did everything right".

Inverters and panel boxes produced by Green Concepts Jamaica (Photo: Joesph Wellington)

"I am Jamaican, but my company at the time was a US company setting up a branch in Jamaica. They know my whole goal is to export. Jamaica's market is not big enough to invest all this money. It was very expensive," he pointed out. Yap Sam said he invested approximately US$700,000 ($105 million) for equipment and stock in the solar battery assembly business.

"We have people waiting on our products in The Bahamas, Barbados, and we have our eyes on a big contract in the US. I even told myself the other day that with the frustration I am facing, I should just pull up shop and return to Miami," he said. "If we had stayed in Miami, we would be way ahead of the game now. That's the truth. But we have invested so much money in equipment, it's hard. Are we going to lose so much money?" he asked as he beckoned for someone to hear his plight and help him find a solution.

He said Green Concepts also installs its own label solar panels, but those are imported rather than produced locally.

Yap Sam said he toyed with the idea of producing solar panels in Jamaica, even though they "are dime a dozen in China", because the savings to be garnered from logistics alone may make the venture viable, but his current export woe is the "sleep he is taking to mark death".

YAP SAM....we have people waiting on our products in The Bahamas, Barbados, and we have our eyes on a big contract in the US. (Photo: Joesph Wellington)

"I am really not up to investing more because I spent a lot of money building out an assembly plant to produce solar batteries and we can't export the product. I am afraid to borrow the money to set up a solar panel plant because that would cost US$4 or US$5 million and I may not be able to export the final product," he said.

"My main issue is that we need to export to sustain the business; otherwise, we may have to pull up. Why can we import [lithium-ion batteries that are considered dangerous] but we can't export [lithium-iron batteries which are far safer]? I am hoping that by shining some light on it, someone will move to sort out the situation. I am a nobody. Who am I to negotiate with a shipping line?" he wondered aloud.

Yap Sam said he has turned to Jampro to help him with a resolution and even joined the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA) to see if it could lobby on his behalf, but nothing has been done as yet.

"Up to the other day my son called them to follow up on how far they have reached and all he has heard is that 'we are looking into it'. The problem with Jamaica is that everyone is just looking. Nobody is doing anything. If they are doing something, they are moving slower than I want them to move. We have been in business for over a year but not close to exporting as we want."

Brian Yap Sam shows off the components which are used to assembly solar batteries at his Kingston, Jamaica assembly plant.Joesph Wellington

At his assembly plant in St Andrew, Yap Sam said he produces and tests about 16 solar batteries per day, using one ageing machine. Production is only limited to the number of batteries the machine can run tests on to ensure they are in good working order and that, he said, can be increased easily by adding more ageing machines, but facing problems to export would make more investments unwise.

He said he was not even looking to go into the solar battery assembly business when he returned to Jamaica to set up business. Yap Sam said he was into home automation — a business his company still does — when a client who bought a solar system to go off grid could not get the battery that comes with the system to work three years after installation.

"I didn't even think about assembling solar batteries. I was just going to do like everybody else and find a distributor and buy batteries for her and install it properly. But many of the distributors [of solar batteries in Jamaica] don't have the authority to open batteries that they sell for repairs or maintenance. They are buying complete batteries from Miami or China, and they don't have the authority to service them. So in the end they are giving a warranty that they are hoping themselves will last for the period in which the manufacturers say."

He said noting the issue of being able to maintain and service the batteries, he decided to take the plunge into solar battery assembly in Jamaica with the hope of not only serving the Jamaican market but to also export.

"It so happens that we are cheaper than most of them [the companies which import and distribute solar batteries], but pricing wasn't my issue. My issue was the warranty. If you are spending upwards and over $500,000 on something, you should have a recourse rather than someone telling you that they can't help you again [when the batteries need servicing]. They can buy the batteries and put their sticker on it, but they are not authorised to open them for repairs. They don't have parts for the batteries. Green Concepts assembles them. We have parts, we have everything for them."

For now, he said he is focusing on the Jamaica market but wants to grow beyond it. Yap Sam said, however, while he is reluctant to invest anymore out of fear of not being able to export the product, he is now moving into producing smart films in Jamaica soon. Smart film is a technology for windows or doors, which make them opaque.

"We actually just signed off on the contract and are now awaiting the equipment to come to start producing."

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