By Christoph Steitz
MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - SMA Solar, Germany's largest solar company, is launching an battery set that will allow households to store surplus daytime solar energy for use in the evening, cutting energy bills.
German households pay some of the highest prices in Europe for electricity because they pick up much of the cost of subsidizing cleaner energy production.
SMA Solar, which is up against fierce Asian competition, says it can help owners of solar panels use more of their self-generated power.
It is Germany's largest solar company and the world's largest maker of solar inverters, a component that helps to feed solar-generated energy into the electricity grid.
The company says its combined inverter battery will give a four-person household up to three hours of extra energy during the evening. The device will go on the market in the second half of this year.
"The discussion is no longer about returns from solar panel installations, as was the case in the past. People now want to know how they can lower their energy bills," SMA Chief Executive Pierre-Pascal Urbon told Reuters late on Thursday.
Current home solar installations typically use only about 25 percent of the electricity they produce. The rest is sold to the grid at around half the roughly 28 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) which consumers pay for power when the sun is not shining.
SMA says combining existing SMA devices with the inverter battery enables consumers to use up to 50 percent of their own solar power, allowing a typical household to more than halve their annual power bills once the cost of buying the devices has been covered.
The company said it will announce the price of the device - which will compete with stand-alone solar batteries - later this year.
SMA Solar is now focusing on devices that cut reliance on energy from utilities, selling a small Internet router-like box that allows consumers to control dryers, washing machines and other electrical appliances via their smartphones.
The 340-euro ($450) box uses weather data to makes sure devices run when the sun shines most. It connects to appliances via bluetooth and also maps a household's energy use.
Urbon said these products were not yet generating large revenue streams but it wanted to increase investment. Although its net profit more than halved to 75.1 million euros ($99 million) in 2012, SMA Solar has ramped up R&D spending to more than 120 million euros in 2013 from 108 million in 2012.
SMA Solar gets two thirds of its 1.5 billion euro turnover from smaller inverters for households and commercial clients, the rest from larger installations for companies and utilities.
Overcapacity and plunging prices in the inverter business have already driven consolidation among SMA's peers.
Urbon said he was convinced the group, with a free float of just 29.15 percent, could maintain or even expand its current global market share of about a quarter, despite stronger competition and increasing consolidation.
In April, Swiss industrial group ABB agreed to buy SMA's main rival, U.S.-based Power, for about $1 billion. Urbon said he had no interest in SMA being bought up by a large conglomerate: "We would lose what makes us strong: our flexibility." ($1 = 0.7590 euros)
(Editing by Geert De Clercq and Ruth Pitchford)