Remote site assessment cuts solar design time, costs (about $850 per install)

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There are some solar installation costs we can’t control, such as the tariffs imposed on the industry this year. But when it comes to cutting soft costs, which now comprise more than half of the cost of a solar installation, installers have a valuable tool in their tool kits: remote site assessment and design. NREL has estimated that solar design software that supports remote shading analysis can save installers $0.17/W per 5-kW system (~$850 per install).

Samuel Adeyemo and Christopher Hopper experienced directly how time-consuming and laborious solar design can be when they partnered on a commercial solar installation to power a school in Kenya in 2012. Installing the system took only a few weeks, but designing the system from across the world required months of planning. After talking to other solar installers, Adeyemo and Hopper realized time-intensive solar design processes were a common struggle.

With the goal of providing a more efficient way to design solar projects while maintaining precision and accuracy, they set about building Aurora Solar in 2013. Today, tools like Aurora’s solar design software are modernizing the design process and offering significant benefits to installers that utilize them.

Save time, effort and money

One of the most tangible benefits of using solar design software is the time and money saved from reduced truck rolls. Traditionally, site visits have been an important step in the solar design and sales process, as a starting point for installers to accurately assess the shading on the roof and determine the appropriate PV system size.

When you or your team have to spend hours driving to prospective customers’ homes and businesses, climbing on the roofs and taking manual measurements, it can be costly—especially during the pre-sale stage. However, with software that enables you to get a detailed understanding of the project site as well as the solar access and shading, you can drastically reduce the need for costly site visits.

Residential installer Solarponics experienced this benefit firsthand. After switching to Aurora for their solar designs, the company has been able to reduce their pre-sale site visits by 90 percent while doubling installations and keeping their closing rate constant.

Improve sales with faster proposal turnaround times

Streamlining your solar design process through remote site assessment also offers important sales benefits. Being able to quickly send an accurate design and quote for a customer, rather than waiting on a site visit, can make a significant difference in closing the sale.

Hans Frederickson, owner of Cascadia Solar, learned this when a company used remote site assessment to close a deal with one of his prospective customers while he was completing his onsite assessment. Soon after that experience, Cascadia Solar switched to remote site assessment and now can send customers a quote within an hour of talking with them on the phone, their solar sales have doubled month over month and more than doubled year over year.

Having a more efficient assessment and design process also makes it possible to pursue leads that might previously have been too costly. “It used to be that proposals were so time-consuming that I would focus on carefully qualifying each lead, but Aurora has allowed us to respond in a much more effective way to every solar lead we get,” says Frederickson.

Bankable accuracy

Of course, in order for remote site assessment to truly be valuable, your solar design, production and bill savings estimates must be accurate and precise to avoid change orders down the line. Thankfully, with the application of cutting edge technologies, remote solar design tools like Aurora offer accuracy that companies can be confident putting their name behind. NREL has validated the accuracy of both Aurora’s performance simulations and its remote shading analysis, which was found to be statistically equivalent to onsite measurements.

Rebate authorities around the country, such as CT Green Bank, NYSERDA, and the Energy Trust of Oregon, accept Aurora’s remote shade reports as an acceptable replacement for time-consuming and costly onsite inspections previously required when applying for rebates.

Data on change orders: Cost and prevalence

Aurora aims to give installers the tools to design and sell better solar, including reducing errors that lead to change orders. Recognizing that there is limited data on the prevalence and cost of change orders in the industry, Aurora surveyed solar professionals about the impact of change orders in a recent webinar. Download our data on change order cost and prevalence to see how your experience stacks up against others in the industry.

— Solar Builder magazine

When augers, ground screws make economic sense for solar contractors

SunModo solar auger

A small Bobcat 331 being used to drive a 10 ft auger using the technique of advancing upon the auger to vertical as it is driven.

The use of augers and ground screws has been of interest in mounting solar systems for some time, and for the right sized job, they offer smaller solar contractors an opportunity to grow their business.

Ground conditions

For one, with smaller PV systems one may not need to spend money on a soil engineering analysis and the cost to permit the design separately. The typical soil type in an area may be known from experience. Perhaps local experience with other construction such as a home foundation or a water line installation can provide clues to the soil type.

A method used by some contractors is to use a hammer drill and ground rod available from an electric supply store and see how easily the rod can be driven into the earth. If the rod hits solid rock 6 inches below the surface, or if the rod is very hard to drive, this could either disqualify the use of ground driven foundations. In some cases this could lead to using ground screws rather than an augers. Additionally, many counties and states have published maps showing the soil types for many locations. Other sources of data are well sites where there is often a record by the foot of the surface to depths much greater than one would drive a ground driven mount.

Selecting a ground mount

Once a determination has been made as to the type of soil at a site, the installer should select a ground mount to use at a site. If the soil type is not heavily compacted and not rocky, one can consider the use of augers. Most typically, a ground auger driven 7 to 10 ft. will suffice for most 3 and 4 row landscape arrays.

If the ground is compacted, made up of heavy clay, or has small rocks within the first 10 ft., then a ground screw would probably be a better choice. Ground screws offer lower torque when driving them into the soil and are less likely to break in harder ground. However, in soft, loamy soils a ground screw will not provide big pullout values compared to an auger.

If the ground is too rocky, other options such as post and concrete, ballasted arrays, or rock anchors may be a better alternative. Experience with ground arrays will greatly help in the selection of a ground mounting system.

SunModo augers

Auger being driven at Groundwater site with Bobcat 337

Driving ground mounts

Some form of tractor or track machine is required to drive ground driven foundations. These machines are easy to rent and use, and depending on the volume you are doing, worth owning. Small arrays with only 8 or 12 posts are probably not worth the investment, but between that and larger arrays that require a specialized company drive the mounts, there is a sweet spot that makes financial sense.

The machine used will need some form of rotary head such as the small Bobcats used to dig holes for pole buildings and fence posts. Alternately, some farm tractors have a rear mounted rotary driver used for fence posts that may be used.

Most equipment rental yards can supply a small track machine normally used with a hole digging auger. With the hole digging auger removed, an adaptor can be used to mate the drive head to fit augers and ground screws. A 2 inch to hex adaptor that fits the machine can be purchased by the installer if not available from the equipment rental yard with the machine.

Figure 4 – Drive adaptor to convert from hydraulic head on rental machine to 2 inch ground mount.

The amount of torque required to drive a ground mount should not be more than a nominal 3000 pounds. If more torque is required, or if the mounts are breaking, than the wrong mount was selected. If augers break, a ground screw should have been used. If ground screws break, then a non-driven mount should be used.

If occasionally a mount breaks due to an undetected boulder or other issue, a traditional post and concrete mounting should be used. In the case of Groundwater a 50 kW project in Portland Oregon, where over 400 augers were used, 8 anchors broke due to large sporadic rocks and were replaced with 8 post and concrete mounted posts.

Auger and Ground Screw Guidelines

This post is an excerpt of this full guideline from SunModo, which clears up the confusion surrounding the use of augers and ground screws. To view the entire white paper, enter the info below.

Calculations and measurements

There are many resources available covering the use and calculations for commercial construction using augers and ground screws. These include Chance Hubble manuals, and other commercial suppliers of augers. However, there are some general guidelines one can follow summarized below.

Augers have a pitch determined by the blade angle. Our auger is a 10 to 1 auger. Using a 10 to 1 auger, each ft. lb. of torque driving the auger provides approximately 10 times the uplift capability when driven to 10 ft of depth. For example, if an auger is driven with 500 pounds of torque to 10 ft. the pullout will be approximately 5000 pounds. Typically augers are driven much harder, resulting in tested pullup values of 20,000 to 30,000 lbs. Most often, augers driven in reasonable soil values will dramatically exceed the pullout values actually required to resist pullout or overturn of the array.

In the case of ground screws, they are typically applied to more dense soils and solids with rock intermixed. A ground screw should not be used in solid rock.

Ground screws in hard soils have pullout values of 1500 to 5000 pounds at a depth of 5 ft., however this estimate is entirely based upon the soil density. The use of ground screws in soft soils will not provide a satisfactory base for a solar array.

The use of a torque measurement gauge is recommended as an additional check on the drive torque and resulting pullout capability. Some modern machines one can rent or buy have a built-in torque gauge. Additionally, there are devices that can mount between the hydraulic head and the ground mount to measure the torque. However, a careful operator will have some sense of the amount of effort required to drive the ground mounts and in most cases can successfully install and driven ground array without a torque head.

Cliff Schrock is an engineering consultant with SunModo.

— Solar Builder magazine

Take advantage of smart residential solar inverter ‘common language’

smart solar inverter sunspec

New codes and regulations are notorious for raising prices and halting innovation in industries, but the new rapid shutdown requirements facing the solar industry are having the opposite effect. Thanks to a coalition of manufacturers and interested parties across solar, the solutions being developed to meet NEC 2017 Module Level Rapid Shutdown requirements will achieve something solar technology has long needed: common language.

“The intent is to create an open protocol for any manufacturer to apply,” says Michael Mendik, head of solution management, Solar Energy Division at Fronius USA. He has been an active member of the SunSpec Alliance, the group that has developed these standards. “Inverter manufacturers can build and design their own transmitters and then the rapid shutdown boxes will also be tuned to that language and can receive the signal. There is no proprietary stuff.”

This standard protocol has ramifications beyond the context of rapid shutdown and opens the door for way more impactful product developments.

1. Proprietary boundaries will come down.

For starters, the array-to-rapid-shutdown-box-to-inverter architecture is more flexible. Prior to any updates, you had to procure the rapid shutdown box and the inverter from the same manufacturer. No more.

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“The installer can install the systems as before and doesn’t have to worry about matching inverters of rapid shutdown boxes,” Mendik says.
So, that’s cool, but that flexibility goes way beyond the rapid shutdown, inverter pairing. “There’s no specific [module-level electronics] on the roof,” Mendik continues. “If there are different panels, they will be working with different rapid shutdown boxes. If one type of inverter in a system breaks, it can be replaced with another, and it will still work. A distributor can have different inverter types in stock for replacement, and everything will still be in line with the protocol.”

2. System designs will be streamlined.

Today, that rapid shutdown box is just an added expense, even now, after the protocol. This is why many installers prefer module-level electronics like microinverters, which meet rapid shutdown module-level requirements while also adding optimization, monitoring and design flexibility.

In the not-too-distant future though, this rapid shutdown box will be gone completely, even in a string inverter design. Soon, using this common language, module manufacturers will be including supped up junction boxes or chips from a company like Maxim instead of diodes. These will meet NEC 2017 and provide MLE performance with a string inverter design. This will keep costs and industry part counts down.

“An integrated module in the future, where the installer doesn’t have to buy and wire a specific rapid shutdown box … it’ll be like going back in time to when he didn’t have to worry about that,” Mendik says. “This also means you won’t have complex electronics on the roof. The standard forces you into more complexity for rapid shutdown, but the solution we’re looking at is simple electronics, not power electronics and doesn’t convert power from DC to AC.”

The customers in the end will have more choice, and this choice and competition will reduce costs even more in the end.

— Solar Builder magazine

Win funding and access to grow your concept in this DOE American innovation competition

Intersolar 2018 coverage (42)

Elaine Ulrich, Senior Advisor, Solar Energy Technologies Office, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Department of Energy, explains the contest at Intersolar 2018 in San Francisco last week.

There are more effective ways for the government to boost U.S.-based innovation and manufacturing without tariffs. Example: The Department of Energy’s American Made Challenge Solar Prize competition is awarding $3 million in prizes as well as support from the DOE’s robust U.S.-based network to help build business plans, prototypes and funding sources for labs and innovators. Additional cash prizes are then awarded to the most viable concepts.

“What role does DOE want to have? To focus on early stage research and forge strong partnerships with the private sector,” said Elaine Ulrich, Senior Advisor, Solar Energy Technologies Office, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Department of Energy, at Intersolar 2018 in San Francisco last week. “We know this is the cornerstone of our success, so a new way we speed innovation is through prize competitions.”

And speed it, it does. This isn’t a laborious grant application process, but a series of contests. Record a 90 second video with a strong pitch and answer four questions: What’s the problem? What’s the solution? Who is on the team? What’s the plan?

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How to win

Participants must identify an impactful solution that addresses critical challenges related to American solar competitiveness, create a proof of concept, and secure a committed partner to test a prototype. Competitors will also participate in demo days, where they will pitch their idea to a team of expert reviewers, who will evaluate competitors based on the quality of their solution and the progress made during the contest period.

The $3 million in funding from the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) will be distributed through a series of three contests:

Ready! Contest (up to $50,000 prize per winner): Winners will be selected after identifying an impactful idea or solution addressing a critical need in America’s solar industry.

Set! Contest (up to $200,000 prize per winner): Competitors will work to substantially advance their technology solution toward a viable and promising proof of concept.

Go! Contest ($500,000 prize per winner): Competitors will work to substantially advance their solution from proof of concept to a refined prototype and find a partner to perform a pilot test of the prototype.

“Within six months, you could have $750,000 in cash and $150,000 in facility vouchers and tapped into a full network,” Ulrich said. “This is just the first, of hopefully many of these contests.”

Participants in this program can be entrepreneurial individuals, representatives of a company, university students or professors, small business owners, or researchers at a national laboratory, as long as they are based in the U.S. and have the desire to bring an impactful solution to advance U.S. solar competitiveness.

Quit reading this and send in your video. Deadline is Oct. 5.

— Solar Builder magazine

Accelerate the solar sales cycle with automated utility data

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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