Solar carport developers find low-cost opportunity despite the tariffs

Quest Renewables

“But whatever the reason [for the tariff], the consequences probably won’t be severe. The solar revolution is happening so fast that the tariff will make little difference.” — Noah Smith, Bloomberg.

This quote from Bloomberg is certainly true, but the immediate effect has unquestionably caused some projects that were “on the bubble” financially to be canceled, and significantly reduced the profitability of others. The uncertainty of the tariff came when the industry didn’t know the final amounts. This made financing difficult because no one knew what projects were ultimately going to cost. In reality, the module tariff turned out to be a relatively small increase of about $.15 per watt to the cost of solar projects.

There are multiple ways to save more than enough money to make up for the tariff increase. Installation labor efficiencies and civil engineering work provide opportunities to increase efficiency so much so that if these levers are pulled, solar installers will be able to decrease the total cost of their projects even with the module tariff in place.

At Quest Renewables, we are attacking the module tariff by improving installation efficiency in solar carports in four ways:

1. Reducing installation labor costs by 50 percent by assembling our systems on the ground, and then lifting completely assembled carports by crane. The cost of the crane is only about 5% of the traditional cost of labor, so the crane pays off by a lot.

2. Using standard pre-engineered array sizes and configurations. This enables us to optimize and reduce foundation count, so that our products have half the number of foundations of systems of comparable size. Not only does this reduce the overall cost of foundations, but it also reduces the overall project variability costs caused by uncertain soil conditions.

Quest Renewables

3. Leveraging local labor crews to reduce installation costs. When our customers manage the project labor or provide their own crews, they gain two big advantages. First, they eliminate markup from construction. Second, they use a skilled local crew that can install our standard systems over and over and become more efficient over time.

4. Increasing project size by covering parking spaces and drive aisles enables a system to deliver up to twice as many watts as a T-canopy. Our customers can install more watts on a project allowing them to spread fixed costs across more wattage which improves profit margins.

With these cost saving efficiencies in place, developers and installers alike are certainly in a great position to continue growing the solar carport space. As utilities realize the unique ability of distributed generation to reduce myriad grid upgrade costs, several states are supporting solar canopy projects. Quest is seeing a lot of new projects coming to fruition in states like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and soon New York. In the coming months, Massachusetts will announce the final version of the state’s SMART Program. The current version of the program includes favorable incentives for carports.

What about the steel tariff?

With the module tariff proving to be manageable, albeit a little uncomfortable, now we bring focus to the steel tariff.

“President Donald Trump’s foray into trade protectionism heartened a handful of manufacturers in a deeply challenged industry but upset a much larger group of thriving downstream businesses that say they will lose sales and shed employees during what should be a boom time.” — James Rainey, NBC News.

Although Quest’s products are made with 100 percent American steel, the price of all steel is going up, foreign and domestic. The unique design of Quest’s canopies enables Quest to help customers overcome the increased cost from the rising price of steel. Quest is partnering with customers to ensure that the industry can succeed in this environment by not raising prices on our products in response to the steel tariff. Further, foundation reduction in projects using QuadPod solar canopies will overcome the increased cost of steel.

The industry is breathing a sigh of relief because the tariffs, both module and steel, have proved to be more of a speed bump and not a stop sign for project development. The bulk of the harm done by the tariffs was the difficulty to get projects financed, but financing can be found. According to the Department of Energy’s website, it remains “committed to leveraging America’s abundant solar energy resources — driving research, manufacturing and market solutions to support widespread expansion of the nation’s solar market.” Even so, the solar industry needs to remain vigilant in its’ advocacy to make sure that solar is here to stay.

Finn Findley is CEO of Quest Renewables.

— Solar Builder magazine

How to maximize large-scale PV site value with string design

CPS Wirebox Installed before Inverter Body

CPS America inverters come with a separable but integrated wiring box where all of the conductors go in and out.

Service models and technology at the string inverter level is vastly improved from where it was a few years ago. Earlier this week we looked at the value of choosing string inverters over central inverters for projects upward of 20 MW, thanks to 1,500-volt architecture, and then the nuances of approach among virtual centralized string and distributed string.

Choosing string means taking advantage of its positives as much as you can, which means design flexibility and maximizing uptime. If a string inverter or two has to come off line for maintenance, only a fraction of the generation of the system is affected compared to the large chunks connected to a central inverter.

Doubling down on this advantage, for distributed string projects, CPS America inverters come with a separable but integrated wiring box where all of the conductors go in and out. Sold together, every inverter comes with its mated wire box. Four bolts hold the wire box to the inverter body — they slide together with guide pins and one large electrical connector — leaving no wires to play with between the inverter and the wire box.

inverter-buyers-guide-300-250

“If there is a problem with the inverter, 99 percent of the time, it will be in the inverter not the wiring box,” says Sarah J. Ozga, product manager North America for CPS America. “And what takes so much time when swapping out inverters is disconnecting the wires to remove it. So with the integrated but separable wire box, you never have to touch a wire — just leave the wires and conduits installed in the wire box, disconnect the inverter and slide in the new one in.”

An RMA swap of the inverter body takes only 15 minutes with this approach from CPS. Suddenly, having them dispersed all over the site doesn’t seem as daunting.

There are communication advantages across the market too that improve O&M while simplifying commissioning. Flex Gateway, for example, is a communication card added to just one inverter in the communication daisy-chain of up to 70 inverters. When the inverters are connected to a third-party monitoring system or even simply a router, the CPS Service team can remotely access the inverter for troubleshooting, to change the settings and even update firmware on the connected inverters. This will reduce truck rolls and get systems up and running faster than before.

— Solar Builder magazine

Using national brands to strengthen the sales of long-tail solar installers

solar installer sales network

Manufacturer installer programs can be a win-win for both sides — a symbiotic relationship — in which solar installers deliver quality systems and strengthen their place in their markets, and manufacturers ensure their products and brand names are installed far and wide and synonymous with the best installers in the business. Since its start in 2008, Sunrise Solar Solutions, a moderately sized solar integrator in upstate New York, has built its brand over the years by only installing quality systems and not making decisions to chase price. Its current point of differentiation is being a SunPower dealer.

“In a competitive market, price can be a differentiator, but if that’s your only differentiator, then you will start to see your competitive advantage fall apart, either through a lower service level or price erosion,” says Rand Manasse, COO with Sunrise Solar.

Along with a proven product, SunPower provides comprehensive training workshops and courses that cover all aspects of the solar business, from sales and installation to design and marketing. Manasse has found the SunPower sales training to be most valuable, which is split up into two different courses for residential and C&I.

“It allows me to establish a template on how the sales process should occur, and then they allow me to make changes to meet my my own process,” he says. “It allows for my way of doing business but within the framework of what they do. To me, that’s more important than the technical training.”

RevoluSun, a solar company based in Massachusetts, is both a SunPower dealer and a certified Panasonic Premium installer for similar reasons, and president Doug Pierce is a big fan of the services built into the Panasonic certification program.

RELATED: Community solar wave sweeps through country — how solar installers benefit

“The marketing is a big tool for us,” Pierce says. “We have a co-op fund with Panasonic, and for every dollar we spend we get a percentage back from them. That goes into a marketing fund, and then we use that money to purchase leads to do co-branded marketing, events or whatever promotes both of our brands. It generates revenue for both of us. They’ve really saddled up next to us at the table and done a good job collaborating with us on ideas to help generate revenue for both of us, like co-branded videos and co-branded leave-behinds for customers that substantiates both of our brands.”

Manasse says this type of support is factored into any of its product decisions: “When people are pitching their products to us, I ask if they have something to help us position their product. If they don’t, we don’t take that product on. Or, if we do, we factor that into the cost of selling their product because we will have to develop our own sales and training program around it one way or another.”

The intangible marketing benefits can be just as powerful. A certification from a brand like Panasonic can be its own sales tool — a stamp from a well known outside source that vouches for your work and also stands behind the system that’s been installed. Usually, that stamp of approval comes with additional quality assurances for the customer as well, such as a better warranty, which is a huge win for the installer and its customers.

For example, roofing manufacturer CertainTeed recently expanded its solar installer program by creating a second, higher tier — the Master Solar Installer. In addition to upping lead generation, marketing support and other benefits of the program, Master Installers are covered by a 25-year workmanship warranty on the installation of the system.

“Our program requirements allow Master Installers to offer a longer warranty, while our Credentialed Installers can continue to offer our 15-year workmanship warranty. Both tiers benefit because they can differentiate themselves in the market which reduces the pressure to compete on price. We’ve seen our installers winning more jobs at greater profit margins,” says Chris Fisher, product manager at CertainTeed Solar. “The benefit to the homeowner is that they get all system components and the installation workmanship warranted directly by CertainTeed. We still honor the warranty even if the original installer is no longer in business.”

All of the manufacturer programs featured in this article carry robust warranty coverages on their products. If there’s a product defect, that truck roll and labor cost is often covered. What makes this possible is the criteria of these certification programs. Every program is different, but certified installers need to show a track record in the business, have up-to-date insurances and often must maintain a high standard to keep their status.

“They do surveys every time we install a system, then they check how happy our clients are,” Manasse says of SunPower. “It’s kind of like a dealer satisfaction survey. We have to maintain a score of a certain level to stay in the program.”

Manufacturer programs usually include leads as a value proposition too — those that come in through their website or sales channels and are funneled through their partners — but any leads that do come in this way are usually seen as a bonus and not a real driver of growth.

“We don’t rely on anyone to support us on leads and marketing. Leads are hard to come by, period,” Manasse says. So, don’t make leads a top reason to join a manufacturer installer program, but this should be a top reason to join an online sales network or third-party bidding platform.

— Solar Builder magazine

Saving costs with large-scale string inverter design, part 2

CPS string inverter design

During this first week of Attack the Tariff, we are looking at all of the efficiencies to be gained and costs to be saved through large-scale string inverter design. In part 1, we looked at the main economic argument for deploying string inverters in large-scale PV projects. Basically, now that 1,500-volt string inverters in the 100 to 125 kW range are on the market, distributed architecture usually presents a more cost-effective, lower risk large-scale site.

But there are two paths to travel on this road, and which you go down will be site and customer dependent – “virtual central” string and distributed string.

“Virtual central” string design approach is for those looking to keep pieces of what they love about central inverter O&M, but gain the benefits of distributed architecture. You’ll see this with available via Sungrow and CPS America: Instead of every row getting its own inverter, the inverter company partners with a skid integrator to aggregate a group of 20 or more inverters to deploy systems in 2 to 3 MW blocks. This accomplishes several things:

• The obvious O&M benefit of having a ton of inverters centrally located while still reaping the string inverter energy generation benefits and increased uptime.

• A huge reduction in communication wiring costs. This is a big one. The RS485 communication wiring that connects each string inverter could run a tab well north of $10,000. Instead of going row to row with RS485, you’re only going a few feet.

• Installation time is also reduced. “At first that sounds silly, but when you have a 30 MW array out there, that’s a lot of land if you have inverters spread across the whole thing,” Ozga says.

But virtual central string will also need combiner boxes out in the array, which is an added cost that offsets the benefit of the centralization of the skid and affects the O&M picture.

inverter-buyers-guide-300-250

Distributed string is just what you think it is, with string inverters distributed at the end of each array. The differences can often be fractions of percentage points, with the main considerations being: experiences with DC and AC wiring, labor rates, trenching, DC and AC cabling costs, voltage drop calculations, data monitoring costs, etc.

While communications wiring is reduced in virtual central systems, CPS has designed the distributed string inverters to drastically reduce this cost as well. Both the 100- and 125-kW 1500-volt distributed string versions include power line communication (PLC) as one communication method. This feature eliminates the cost for wiring RS485 throughout the array.

Choosing among distributed string or centralized string options will be site and customer specific. CPS America provides both options, and Ozga says some customers see the wiring costs are greater in distributed while others see them higher in an aggregated virtual central system. It is worth the exercise to calculate both scenarios in full to see how they pencil out for every project.

“We’ve decided to offer both for any customers that feel they are not seeing the savings and want to stay distributed, but I think it is a decision that comes down to system size,” says Sarah J. Ozga, product manager North America for CPS America.

There is even more with the O&M equation for true distributed string architecture, which we’ll look at in part 3 on Friday.

We will also dive into this in MUCH greater detail in this upcoming free webinar. Sign up here.

Utility-Scale String Design

Wed, Jun 20, 2018 2:00 PM EDT

When designing a large site one consideration is String or Central. Both have well defined benefits. Historically, the large utility-scale sites have mainly relied upon central inverters. Now a third option, the Virtual Central, is paving the way for string inverters into this space. In this webinar, we will discuss the benefits and disadvantages to both the distributed and centralized string architectures and how the design choice affects installers, developers and site owners. Sign up here.

— Solar Builder magazine

Saving costs with large-scale string inverter design, part 1

CPS 60kW Ground AZ

String inverters are now a staple of the commercial and industrial and small utility-scale segments, which was solely the domain of central inverters once upon a time. The trend started about six years ago when string inverters souped-up to 1,000 volts and developers and EPCs saw the value in chasing the higher efficiencies, multiple MPPTs and greater energy harvest rewards provided by distributed string architecture.

But two years ago, the shift to an even lower cost 1,500-volt architecture started, and the math shifted right back to central inverters because 1,500-volt three-phase string inverters weren’t available.

“A year and a half ago, string inverters were about 8 cents per watt and central plus combiners were 6 cents per watt, so that seemed cheaper,” says Ed Heacox, GM, CPS America. “Central plus combiner boxes seemed cheaper.”

inverter-buyers-guide-300-250

But string inverters have souped-up again, and that economic story has flipped again. Instead of string vs. central, the discussion is changing to distributed string vs. “virtual centralized” string. In the Solar Builder Inverter Buyer’s Guide this year, you’ll see a bunch of string inverters in the 100 to 125 kW range, and those that aren’t rated at 1,500 volts will be soon. The cost is now closer to 5 to 6 cents per watt, with central inverters still sitting at a cost per watt similar to two years ago. That aforementioned 3 to 5 MW cap is about to be a thing of the past. CPS has its 1,500-volt product coming out in June and says it is rocketing past that 3 to 5 MW sweet spot.

“We are having regular discussions about projects 20 to 30 MW in size now when before, that was extremely rare,” says Sarah J. Ozga, product manager North America for CPS America. This could possibly go as high as 100 MW in the not-too-distant future.

Now, all costs being equal, some will still gravitate to central inverters because of operations and maintenance preferences: Lots of walking or driving all over to address each O&M issue spread across a 30 MW site, and god help you if the site was mapped incorrectly. String inverters can feel unwieldy if you’re unprepared for them.

“A lot of time O&M depends on the developer or EPC’s personal experience with inverter reliability,” Heacox says. “Those who had a lot of downtime on central, are for sure leaning to string. But those who have had great experiences don’t feel they need to change for projects larger than 5 MW. But some see that if they go down the string path, there is more interchangeability among suppliers with relatively similar products — and the engineering and workload need for swapping out string inverters is a lot easier than reengineering a 3 MW power station.”

In part 2, we will look at two different string solutions that offer the lowest cost path and meet any O&M preferences you may have. We will also dive into this in MUCH greater detail in this upcoming free webinar. Sign up here.

Utility-Scale String Design

Wed, Jun 20, 2018 2:00 PM EDT

When designing a large site one consideration is String or Central. Both have well defined benefits. Historically, the large utility-scale sites have mainly relied upon central inverters. Now a third option, the Virtual Central, is paving the way for string inverters into this space. In this webinar, we will discuss the benefits and disadvantages to both the distributed and centralized string architectures and how the design choice affects installers, developers and site owners. Sign up here.

— Solar Builder magazine