Context Clues: Know where to find the value when selling commercial solar solutions

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Land in any airport, and the view tells the story. Commercial buildings with fresh paint and no solar panels on them yet. Residential customers may commit to solar for a variety of personal and ethical reasons, but nonresidential property owners tend toward the pragmatic.

They make business decisions based on profits.

This historically lagging solar segment is starting to come around though. In the Q3 2017 U.S. Solar Market Insight report from GTM Research, which showed a 22 percent decline for the overall industry year over year, also showed that nonresidential solar grew 22 percent, installing 481 MW.

The business is out there. The installers who present solutions based on a clear understanding of nonresidential energy costs can build momentum in what may turn out to be the largest solar segment of all.

Utility tariff structures

Commercial and industrial customers have complex energy needs that go far beyond a simple “go / no-go” decision for a solar project. In particular, these customers pay much of their electricity bill in the form of demand charges. These charges can be quite complex, featuring “ratchets” and other calculations resulting in very high charges that can last for many months after a simple error in operations. In many utility service territories, demand charges comprise more than one-third of the customer’s electricity bill; in a few, it’s more than one-half.

In addition to rising demand charges, changes in time-of-use (TOU) rate structures in many states have customers scrambling for solutions. While there is no doubt that solar can deliver significant energy savings to a nonresidential customer, a traditional solar installation provides little or no reduction in demand charges for most accounts, nor any control over the time of day when energy is consumed.

A solar installation that delivers big energy savings may result in little or no demand savings. As shown in Figure 1, a single cloud at the wrong time on the wrong day can wipe out a month’s worth of savings. Without appropriate demand management technology, net load can “spike” to create a new monthly peak demand.

solar storage

Figure 1: Solar Plus Demand Management, Office Building, July 2015

Solar providers are increasingly finding that when they propose new projects to their nonresidential customers, these customers are more informed and sophisticated about their energy needs. Odds are good that a storage provider has already come calling to see if a battery system could help with TOU rates and demand charges, but batteries are still very expensive, and in states without significant subsidies, they often don’t pencil out on their own, either.

In our interviews with solar professionals this past summer, we were told over and over that because of changes in the market, “it’s time to get off the roof and come inside.” Until a solar provider has a more complete picture of a customer’s energy needs — their energy usage patterns and the business needs driving those patterns — that provider is competing at a disadvantage. In reality, any solar solution needs to be presented in the context of these usage patterns and needs.

From Tesla cars to Gigafactories, there is a lot of news about battery storage, and as battery costs continue dropping, some smart solar providers are exploring becoming solar-plus-storage providers. In some states with high incentives for batteries (and with some clever use of the Investment Tax Credit), this can be a good combination. In many cases, load flexibility is both more valuable and less expensive than batteries. Simple changes in operation (undetectable to building occupants in commercial buildings and easy to manage in many industrial facilities) can offset the variation in solar output and eliminate spikes that cause high demand charges, but only with the right tools. Such load flexibility can actually complement storage solutions. With the right analysis, taking advantage of flexible loads can help a customer to right-size energy storage subsystems for a more cost-effective total package. The solar triple play — solar plus storage plus load flexibility — can be a potent solution to a variety of customer energy challenges.

RELATED: Our Project of the Year for 2017 is a great example of finding value

Expanding the comfort zone

There are no serious technical impediments to delivering nonresidential solar solutions that bring both energy and demand charge savings. The trends are all in favor of such solutions:

  • Storage devices (both batteries and thermal storage) are declining in price quite rapidly; new announcements from both established and new storage vendors appear weekly.
  • Building and industrial controls are becoming more sophisticated and more standardized.
  • Sensors and data networks are increasingly affordable and more universally deployed.
  • Big data analytics are becoming more widespread, powerful and accessible.
  • Software solutions taking advantage of machine learning and advanced control algorithms will soon be widely available for application in real-world customer energy solutions.

As with many new major shifts, the technology outlook is bright, but the biggest change required is cultural. Solar providers with a high comfort level matching panels and inverters to customer roofs and electrical systems may face a steep learning curve when moving into the less-familiar world of building and industrial operations. Inside the facility, it’s a whole different world, but one that every complete customer energy solutions provider must understand.

The good news is that many of the initial fact-finding steps are the same as those required for solar installations everywhere. The customer billing data, load profile data and utility tariff information remain the foundation of any good proposed solution. Creating a complete energy solution, however, requires a more complete supplier ecosystem than most current solar providers can deliver alone.

Some of the most fruitful conversations we had last year at Intersolar and Solar Power International were about the development of that bigger ecosystem. Numerous battery vendors, many of whom originally came out of the market for small, off-grid applications, began to describe how their offerings could be adapted for commercial building applications in demand-charge reductions. Software startups, many of whom got their start from DOE SunShot awards, contributed ideas for better data visualization and control. And while control vendors have not even been present at past solar events, a few are starting to recognize the synergies between solar and load flexibility.

The future is promising for innovative solar providers who are willing to broaden their offerings and embrace a total energy solution approach for commercial and industrial customers. We invite feedback and conversation with any solar providers with insights into how the nonresidential market is changing, and how to strengthen the emerging ecosystem of nonresidential energy solution providers.

John T. Powers is founder and CEO of Extensible Energy. An energy economist with more than 30 years of experience in consulting and technology development for the electric utility industry, Powers has worked in energy efficiency, demand response and renewables for most of his career. He currently serves as project officer for the Community Solar Value Project, a DOE SunShot project helping utilities to develop better community solar programs.

— Solar Builder magazine

Details on 7.5-MW solar project at Sacramento International Airport

SMA Inverter at SMF

The Sacramento International Airport (SMF) added 7.9 MW of solar energy generation across two sites: A 15-acre plot near the airport’s economy parking lot, and a 20-acre location north of the runway. Borrego Solar, a top commercial solar company that specializes in designing and constructing solar and energy storage projects, constructed the project with financing from NRG, which will own and operate the facility. NRG will sell electricity to SMF under a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA).

The SMF project consists of two SMA Sunny Central 2200-US inverters integrated with a Medium-Voltage Block, and three Sunny Central 800 CP-US inverters.

“We are pleased to partner with Borrego Solar to bring renewable energy to the Sacramento International Airport, which holds special meaning because our U.S. headquarters is located in the Sacramento region,” said Jim Crossen, general manager for SMA America. “With Sunny Central inverters delivering reliable, robust performance, we are confident that the airport –and those who utilize it –will see the benefits of solar energy.”

The system will offset 30 percent of SMF’s electricity use, providing cost savings of up to $850,000 per year over the 25-year PPA, and will also help the airport achieve environmental leadership in the region.

“SMA is a valuable partner, and we were glad to utilize the company’s exceptional technology and local expertise for this PV system,” said Aaron Hall, president of Borrego Solar Systems. “With the Sunny Central’s reliable performance and power production, we are confident the airport will see great savings with it solar investment.”

The project was completed and commissioned in December 2017.

— Solar Builder magazine

Connecticut Green Bank’s PACEsetter award given to Direct Energy Solar

Direct Energy solar

The Connecticut Green Bank awarded Direct Energy Solar and Durham Agricultural Fair Association the PACEsetter Outstanding Project Award for their solar project, a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) secured by Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE), at the Durham Agricultural Association Fairgrounds in Durham, CT.  The system is 188.65 kW and composed of 686 Hanwha QCell 275-watt panels with a SolarEdge Inverter System.

The PACEsetter Awards were created by the Connecticut Green Bank to acknowledge those who are advancing the green energy movement through the C-PACE program, and whose leadership establishes a “pace” for others in their field to follow. This is the third annual PACEsetter Awards ceremony.

“Our ‘PACEsetters’ are the driving force behind the C-PACE program,” said Mackey Dykes, Vice President of Commercial, Industrial, and Institutional Programs at the Connecticut Green Bank. “The Connecticut Green Bank is happy to recognize Direct Energy Solar as a PACEsetter and highlight their outstanding C-PACE project in Durham, Connecticut. Projects like these set an example for others to follow as the C-PACE program grows.”

Three takeaways from SEIA white paper on financing C&I solar with C-PACE

C-PACE is an innovative program, administered by the Green Bank, which helps commercial, industrial, and non-profit property owners access affordable, long-term financing for meaningful energy upgrades to their buildings. C-PACE enables building owners to finance qualifying energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements through a voluntary assessment on their property tax bill. As the program grows, more Connecticut businesses achieve lower energy costs and increase their bottom-line. The Green Bank recently announced that they had closed their 200th C-PACE project.

— Solar Builder magazine

Arcadia Power teams with New Columbia Solar to provide community solar option in D.C.

washington DC solar

Arcadia Power and New Columbia Solar, an energy provider to residents and businesses throughout the Washington, D.C., formed a partnership to make community solar accessible for all D.C. residents. The initial project will be the first privately-funded community solar project in D.C. and will feature a completely free, user-friendly sign-up process never before available in the District of Columbia.

With community solar, anyone can benefit from solar power savings even if they cannot install solar panels on their own property. However, signing up for a community solar project has traditionally required users pay two different monthly bills, fill out extensive paperwork, agree to binding contracts with cancellation fees, and undergo a credit check.

“The goal of community solar has always been to make solar savings accessible to all, but the sign-up process for homes and apartments has been anything but easy,” said Kiran Bhatraju, CEO of Arcadia Power. “We’re thrilled to be partnering with New Columbia Solar to bring hassle-free community solar to District residents.”

New Columbia Solar’s clean energy systems are being built and operated on buildings all across the city, enabling District residents to power their lives entirely through locally based solar energy. This combined with Arcadia Power’s billing platform, makes signing-up for locally based solar power easier than ever, and with no upfront costs whatsoever, for D.C. residents. Anyone in D.C. can connect their utility account to Arcadia Power’s online energy platform to sign-up for a community solar project. Members will start saving about 10 percent on their monthly power bills and can track their solar savings on their online dashboard.

RMI report shows path for a 30-GW community solar market by 2020

The initial community solar project will be hosted on the roof of a local community church, Celestial Church of Christ. The building’s roof, which has been suffering from extensive leaks, will be replaced and repaired as part of the project. This will give the church a brand-new roof, with a 25-year warranty, while hosting a local solar energy system capable of powering the lives of District residents and parishioners.

“This partnership kicks off our ability to not only reinvest into our city but to provide clean, local energy to District residences through community solar,” said Mike Healy, CEO of New Columbia Solar. “We are excited to continue our mission to make it as easy as humanly possible for D.C. residents and businesses to benefit from solar energy. As more community members express interest in solar, we will develop new projects all over the city to revitalize outdated energy systems, invest in capital improvements and create jobs in our community, all by offering locally based solar energy at a great price.”

As more D.C. homeowners and renter’s sign-up for Arcadia Power, more projects are in place to be developed. Sign ups are located here.

— Solar Builder magazine

Natcore Technology found a lower-cost production method for its high-efficiency solar cell

Natcore technology

Natcore Technology Inc. has dramatically streamlined the fabrication method for its Natcore Foil Cell, allowing for even lower-cost production methods of this highly efficient, all-black solar cell. Natcore’s previous laser processing method has been eliminated and replaced by a carrier selective contact process. This is combined with a foil metallization that can be cheaply made with high-speed roll-processing methods.

Natcore is targeting over 25% real-world efficiency for its eventual production solar cells, roughly a 25% performance improvement over many high-end commercial cells being installed today.

The advantages explained

These advances have maintained, and in fact enhance, the two key advantages of Natcore’s Foil Cell:

1) The elimination of high-cost silver. Natcore’s Foil Cell replaces silver, and its high material costs and complicated production processes, with aluminum foils. At approximately 1/300th the cost of silver, aluminum allows for more metal to be used to maintain conductivity, while also enabling high-speed, high-volume materials handling and processing.

2) The potential for ultra-high efficiencies in an affordable production cell. The silicon heterojunction (SHJ) structure of Natcore’s Foil Cell is the same basic structure used to achieve world-record silicon cell efficiencies of over 26% by major manufacturers in experimental solar cells.

But Natcore’s innovative use of pre-fabricated foils to produce this structure will allow, for the first time, the low-cost mass manufacturing of these ultra-high efficiency, all-back-contact solar cells.

“The solar industry is exceedingly competitive,” notes Brien Lundin, Natcore’s Chairman. “Studies show that they have to achieve at least a 0.6% performance improvement every year to survive, yet they struggle to clear even this low bar. Because Natcore’s Foil Cell will represent a generational leap in performance, we are confident that major industry players will join us in advancing our technology to market.”

What’s next?

Natcore has begun an accelerated development program to produce a prototype with the new process, as well as include production cost and efficiency modeling by independent authorities.

The result will be a functioning prototype proving the essential production process, as well as studies establishing the ultimate affordability and ultra-high-efficiency potential of the Foil Cell. Natcore plans to pursue partnerships with leaders in the industry to commercialize its technology. The production of this prototype will be a key part of this process.

To fund the accelerated prototype program, as well as general corporate expenses, Natcore will conduct a financing, the terms of which have yet to be determined.

— Solar Builder magazine