Accelerate the solar sales cycle with automated utility data

solar sales utility data

The Trump administration’s 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels represents a significant obstacle for the U.S. solar market. SEIA predicts that the tariffs could reduce this year’s domestic solar growth by 18 percent, and could lead to the loss of 23,000 jobs. But one game-changing innovation could give solar firms just the edge they need to attack the tariff: we’re talking about utility data.

What can utility data do for your bottom line?

Accelerate the sales cycle

According to Eric Reinhardt, Sunrun senior director of software product management, it can take from three to six months for solar customers to go from the initial consideration of a solar panel installation to an actual completed project. Automating as many things as possible throughout that process ensures a closed deal and a happy customer.

Today’s sales cycle is so long, in part, because it’s time- and resource-intensive to evaluate prospects that are a good fit. With utility data on the backend, a solar installer can access a prospect’s actual address, electric usage, costs and tariff. This means that, before even sending someone to the property for a site visit, the installer can assess system size, project customer ROI, and determine whether they’re a good candidate for solar. With this information in hand, installers can expect more efficient sales cycles and, ultimately, higher revenue.

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Simplify the customer experience

While simplifying the customer experience drives the sale itself, it continues to improve customer satisfaction afterward. According to Velocify Research, when it comes to solar sales, contacting prospects within a minute after a lead is generated increases lead-to-sale conversions by nearly 400 percent. In contrast, contacting them within five to 24 hours only increases conversions by 17 percent.

Utility data can help to speed up the process of putting together and returning a quote to not only keep prospects engaged, but also produce a quantified effect on sales. Rather than asking a customer to dig through and upload 12 months of utility bills — or worse, manually enter monthly estimates of usage and cost — installers can simply ask a customer to link their utility account to automatically provide the information directly from their electric utility provider.

Build brand trust

The solar industry hasn’t always had a sterling reputation with consumers. “There’s a common association that many homeowners have with solar,” says Luke Richardson, digital marketing specialist at EnergySage. “It has to do with pushy door-to-door solar sales reps that pressure consumers to sign a 20-year solar contract before they explain the full scope of the offer or the credibility of the solar company.” Utility data can help here, too, by providing the opportunity for solar installers to generate accurate, trustworthy cost estimates.

Building proposals on actual data, rather than estimates, results in savings for the homeowner that live up to expectations. Installers can use utility data to show homeowners that they understand their specific circumstances and are confident about the actual benefits a solar installation will provide. Not only will using accurate data enhance the credibility of an individual installer’s brand, but it will also enhance trust in the solar industry as a whole, supporting long-term solar revenue growth.

This administration’s solar tariffs will inevitably hurt the industry. That’s an economic fact. But, armed with the right tools, solar firms of all sizes have the power to fight back. With utility data, installers can continue to grow their customer base, establish brand awareness and trust, and cultivate revenue streams – now and well into the future.

Matt Kuo is VP of Product Management at Urjanet.

— Solar Builder magazine

Boost solar site performance by at least 3 percent with O&M basics

SMA O&M services

Photo of SMA O&M services,

In a post-Trump Tariff world, optimizing current portfolios is crucial, not just for each project to hit its targets, but to continue to prove solar as a worthy investment and distributed resource. Luckily, this is easy to accomplish with a well-thought out operations and maintenance (O&M) plan.

With more than a decade of hardcore O&M industry experience, there is a greater reservoir of institutional knowledge both out in the field and in plant operation management. For example, MaxGen is a U.S.-centric O&M provider focused on utility and C&I sites that manages a large team of licensed, professional technicians throughout the country, hitting about 5,000 different sites a year for corrective (CM) and preventive maintenance (PM). As part of its business model, the company will take over portfolios of assets to monitor — some of which are underperforming. According to Mark McLanahan, CEO of MaxGen, assets are usually underperforming because of one or more of these reasons:

The site is not in good physical condition because of poor vegetation management or erosion or general site management. Consider this a reminder to keep O&M in mind when designing a project because it is often the largest expense over the life of the project. “Handling stuff like vegetation management and module washing can be the biggest expense by far if you’re not careful,” McLanahan says.

Poor PM records, which often means PM hasn’t been done. “That’s a problem because you have to perform PM to maintain warranties of inverters, combiners and modules,” McLanahan says. “We have seen many cases where service to date is either not verified or there’s no record.”

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This is where PowerFactors comes in handy. PowerFactors is an energy operations management software platform that MaxGen has been using since 2016 to integrate all the monitoring, alarm management, work order creation and management, dispatch and reporting for all the operations, and preventive and corrective maintenance tasks in its scope of work with its customers. Also, contract requirements can be programmed into the system. For example, Power Purchase Agreements in California often require instant notification of large drops in capacity and failure to do this will incur penalties. Auto-notifications can be routed to the right places in those events with the right rules plugged into the software. This enables fewer operators to manage more projects with greater complexity.

The site data acquisition system simply hasn’t been mapped properly, which undermines the data quality of the entire project and leads to maintenance misdirection. There’s an outage on inverter A; a dispatched technician heads to inverter B because it’s mapped as inverter A. The issue isn’t discovered, and so on. McLanahan estimates that MaxGen encounters this in 20 to 30 percent of the underperforming sites it takes over.

“It’s a data quality issue,” he says. “With solar, you have to study performance at the low level, not just the revenue meter, to make decisions on performance. You have to look at inverters or combiners or at the main circuit. If the mapping is no good, you’re wasting time.”

Once the site is remapped and the PM is up to date, annual maintenance and CM plans are put in place to build it back to baseline performance using better data. From there, more advanced decisions can be made. Data can be studied for factors such as ground coverage ratios, tracker angles, performance anomalies at the combiner level and similarity-based modeling to help identify additional opportunities. MaxGen has boosted a number of utility-scale projects 2 to 5 percent on the performance side using this systematic process.

“With consistency, you’ll see 1 to 3 percent improvement right off the bat just with low-hanging fruit,” McLanahan says. “Compare the combiners on a relative basis on performance and just look at last month. That sets the corrective maintenance for the next week. Once you have accomplished all the PM tasks, have good data access and capture the low hanging fruit, you can move up the lost energy priority list and tackle the things that are above the baseline to increase production and revenue even further.”

The true bottom line in PV system performance, from initial projections to 30 years in the future, is customer service. People need to make the correct assumptions, perform all O&M tasks correctly and use data analysis to their advantage while being as proactive as possible. As more data is gathered and algorithms are perfected, “trend events” will be the next frontier for improving performance.

“These don’t show up as a discrete one-time energy loss but as small events that happen continuously over time, and if you don’t look for them you won’t see them,” McLanahan says. So, maybe one inverter is coming on and offline in mere seconds. “If you look at the curve, you won’t see it, but if you look at the trend, there’s something wrong with that inverter, and it will likely break down at some point.”

That curve is a nice visual to end on. Just plan to stay ahead of it.

— Solar Builder magazine

Nuance Energy awarded contract for 6-MW in solar from LA Department of Water and Power

nuance energy

Nuance Energy, manufacturer of the patent-pending Osprey PowerPlatform and developer of distributed generation solar projects, was awarded a contract with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for ground mount solar arrays to be deployed at LADWP facilities. The contract was awarded after a competitive bidding process that attracted interest from dozens of vendors. Here’s a full case study.

LADWP supplies more than 26 million Megawatt-hours of electricity annually to 1.4 million homes and businesses throughout the City of Los Angeles. Like all electric utilities in California, the agency must meet the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) required by state law and the California Energy Commission. LADWP is well ahead of the mandated RPS targets with its own, more aggressive targets of 33 percent by 2020, growing to 65 percent by 2036.

Nuance Energy’s Osprey PowerPlatform is a fixed tilt ground mount system. These portable and modular units will be used to deploy solar arrays totaling 50-kW AC of power (or approximately 65-kW DC) in LADWP facilities. The successful vendor would need to be able to supply enough solar units to deploy up to 40 of these 50kW AC solar project sites in the first year. The contract is optionally renewable over the next two years for an additional 80 solar arrays resulting in a total of up to 6MW.

RELATED: We shift you not: A ground-mount solar system without piles

“A major reason Nuance Energy was selected after such a competitive bidding process is the industry-leading ease and low cost of installation afforded by our revolutionary Osprey PowerPlatform,” said Brian C. Boguess, Nuance Energy’s founder and CEO. “The Osprey’s pre-engineered, modular design and innovative earth anchor foundation system make it possible for a three to four-person crew to install up to 50kW (AC) in an eight-hour work day using only handheld power tools, and without any need for a geotechnical report or special inspections.”

“The speed to deploy the Osprey is unmatched in the solar industry,” Boguess added. “Nuance Energy’s modular Osprey PowerPlatform allows the customer to ‘lift and shift’ the renewable energy asset as needed. Osprey PowerPlatform is a proven solar solution that can be used by any electric utility wishing to deploy solar arrays along their rights-of-way.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Standard Solar teams with CI Labs to boost access to C&I capital

Standard Solar

In its continuing efforts to streamline the efficiency of commercial solar financing for businesses, organizations, municipalities, educational institutions and other entities, Standard Solar is teaming with CI Labs, a commercial and industrial underwriting, engineering and financing analytic platforms, to significantly increase transaction efficiency for solar projects and provide faster and easier access to its in-house capital.

As described in Standard Solar’s commercial financing primer “Commercial Solar Financing – The Definitive Guide,” solar customers face multiple challenges when it comes to project financing, including operating in a complicated market where customized solar financing solutions are increasingly paramount.

The CI Labs Platform, when paired with access to Standard Solar’s capital resources, will give the industry a means to evaluate options for customers in a more efficient manner and provide faster funding for projects should the customer decide to move forward.

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“Traditionally, the solar project space has been murky in terms of the ability of finance providers to give solid guidance on the necessary blend of credit underwriting criteria and independent engineering requirements for a viable fund portfolio,” explained Shaun Laughlin, Head of US Strategic Development for Standard Solar. “Our work with CI Labs will allow us to compress and clarify the process for developers and increase the velocity of our capital deployment.”

The team from CI Labs has more than 20 years combined solar industry experience, and Nathan Homan, Co-Founder of CI Labs, helped to create one of the solar industry’s leading commercial & industrial underwriting and analytic financing platforms.

“We believe that our industry experience, combined with the leverage of Standard Solar’s low-cost project finance options, will enable capital providers, developers and solar investors to close projects with much greater ease and efficiency,” said Homan.

— Solar Builder magazine

Yaskawa Solectria, Tigo team up on rapid shutdown system

Yaskawa Solectria

Yaskawa Solectria Solar (YSS) announced its partnership with Tigo, the leading manufacturer of Module-Level Power Electronics (MLPE). Together YSS and Tigo are providing a simple, safe solution for roof-mounted PV systems to ensure the safety of firefighters and first responders, and guarantee system owners of full compliance with the National Electrical Code (NEC) module-level rapid shutdown requirements.

Yaskawa Solectria Solar has achieved compatibility of its PVI 50/60TL line with the entire TS4 portfolio of devices from Tigo. This includes the TS4-F (Fire Safety), Tigo’s new fire-safety model, which is the simplest and most cost efficient method to achieve compliance with NEC 2017 requirements for module-level rapid shut down. Our system solution utilizes powerline communication and meets the latest SunSpec Alliance protocol.

In addition, the PVI 50/60TL is compatible with the rest of the Tigo family of devices –TS4-D (Diodes), TS4-M (Monitoring), TS4-S (Safety), TS4-O (Optimization), TS4-L (Long Strings), allowing module-level optimization or string stretching. The YSS / Tigo partnership provides flexibility for our customers, for example, allowing a PV array to use a combination of optimizers on portions that see shade and the lower-cost for those in perfect sun.

At this time YSS has achieved compatibility with the Tigo TS4 family with five of our commercial string inverters: PVI 23TL, PVI 28TL, PVI 36TL, PVI 50TL and PVI 60TL. Next in line and currently under test is our all-new SOLECTRIA XGI 1000 — BAA compliant and Made in the U.S.A. with global components. Expect an updated announcement later this summer.

— Solar Builder magazine