Total clean energy disruption is here and three other takeaways from Intersolar 2018

Starting with the opening keynote presentations on through the innovations on the expo floor, Intersolar 2018 was all about disruption. Yes, even those of you already succeeding in solar today, if you’re not careful, you could be disrupted too. Here’s what jumped out at us in San Francisco last week.

1. Total clean energy disruption is coming, and it’s bigger than you think it is.

Intersolar 2018 coverage (53)

Keynote speaker Tony Seba was the disruption tone setter. For those unfamiliar, Seba is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, an instructor in Entrepreneurship, Disruption and Clean Energy at Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program and author of Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation. His work focuses on clean energy, entrepreneurship and market disruption of the world’s major industries, such as energy, transportation, infrastructure, finance and manufacturing.

Yea, it’s a lot, but luckily he summarized it all in his presentation to kick off Intersolar. He makes the case that energy storage, EVs, ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles are on a path to converge very soon, and that the convergence of technology and business models in such a way is always the heart of true disruption.

“Every single technology has been adopted as an S curve. It is never a line,” Seba said. Consider the fact that cars replaced the horse and buggy in a mere 10-year span – and that’s in the days of, well, horse and buggy. His research shows how the tipping point for disruption has always led to a sharp S-curve trajectory, which is only getting sharper in our current time. “S curves are accelerating. It takes months or a year or two. More like J curves now. But yet there are still just straight lines in projections.”

Fast forwarding to the end scenario he lays out (which he originally laid out four years ago, and is right on track) is a world with little to no car ownership because of how much more economic sense it will make to “Uber” everywhere via fleets of automated ride services. This scenario upends much of our modern infrastructure — an abundance of storage on the grid, no use for parking lots, etc. I can’t really do it justice, so I’d recommend watching the full presentation for way more details.

The takeaway I’d like to highlight for the solar industry though is how winners of a disruption are rarely incumbents. Seba points to Kodak as a quick example. Kodak invented digital photography, had its best year ever, and then was basically out of business in under 10 years. Yes, despite that constant steep S curve, projection systems and experts and thought leaders are never prepared when that disruption hits. Companies you’ve never heard of are already ramping up to own the automated driving fleet space and random companies like Dyson are taking educated stabs in the dark at launching their own line of EVs.

For clean energy, the technology and economics are already there, it’s just a matter of a few other chess pieces moving into place, or dots connecting, or whatever other game analogy you’d like to use. If you smell what Seba is cooking, make your plans for this new world now.

2. You should try and win this funding competition.

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Did that disruption talk get you excited, or get the gears turning on the next big idea? Well, hurry and tell the Department of Energy about it and you might get hooked up with a network of people to help implement it, along with some cash.

The DOE’s American Made Challenge Solar Prize competition is awarding $3 million in prizes as well as support from the DOE’s U.S,-based network to help grow, 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. “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?

The field will be winnowed to about 20 to 40 winners (for a max of $50,000 each) to about 12 after the proof of concept stage (an and additional $200,000 possible), until finally two winners will emerge with $500,000 to launch company.

“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.”

Oct. 5 is the submission deadline.

3. Yes, there is still new ground to break in ground-mounted solar.

We saw and heard about several design changes in ground-mounted solar that can forge new paths in underserved segments or take over/grow established segments. We can’t talk about all of them right now (stay tuned for Solar Power International), but here are a few to note.

AP Alternatives Ready Rack

AP Alternatives Ready Rack.

AP Alternatives‘ Ready Rack mounting hardware is designed for both large utility-scale projects and small commercial projects. The small helical anchors and quick install cross bracing make the simple system robust even for high wind zones.

What we liked: This system is nimbly installed with an attachment that fits on a skid steer, which opens up the 20 to 100-kW market up much more for small solar contractors to grow and scale their business.

Soltec bifacial tracking

Live at the Soltec Bifacial testing facility.

We will have more on this topic in our Sept./Oct. issue, but just know that the industry is very focused on finding true, objective results for bifacial modules deployed in various tracker combinations. The price point on bifacial modules may not make sense for wide deployment just yet, but when it does, highly bankable systems from Soltec and Array Technologies, to name two, will be at the ready. Soltec has built a testing ground and is working with NREL and Black and Veatch to gather a complete data set on the harvest of bifacial modules on solar trackers.

Alion tracker

Alion Energy tracker.

This Alion Energy tracker is definitely not for all sites – it has a very specific value proposition for tough and dusty terrains by incorporating a self-cleaning function. There is a lot of concrete needed to install this system, but you could picture it opening up new sites in remote, harsh desert landscapes because of how often its panels could be cleaned with an automated system that uses much less water and no labor.

4. Solar + storage value is much clearer on both the large and small scale.


You’ll want to check out the Sol-Ark inverter.

On the small-scale side, we saw the most efficient solar + storage inverter on the market, and it isn’t from SolarEdge or Tesla but from little-known Sol-Ark. We explain DC transformerless architecture in greater detail in our Sept./Oct. print issue, but the quick story is this inverter is able to maintain an impressively high efficiency – both peak and consistent – in battery and grid tied scenarios.

On the large-scale side, more and more storage is being built into projects. First Solar recently signed a project contract for 150 MW of storage, for example. The key stat came from Joachim Seel, Scientific Engineering Associate at the Electricity Markets and Policy Group, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, U.S.: At least six PPAs this year have featured PV-plus-long-duration storage that do not seem to be priced at a prohibitive premium to PV only.

Oh yeah, that reminds me of one more quote from Seba’s presentation: “At some point soon solar-plus-batteries will be cheaper than transmission,” Seba stated. Insert thinky emoji here.

— Solar Builder magazine

H&H Solar completes largest solar project in Iowa

H&H Solar completed two of their latest solar energy projects in Iowa. For both projects, H&H Solar provided the design, engineering, construction and final installation.

H and H solar projects

The West Dubuque project, now the largest and most powerful solar energy location in Iowa, is a 5 MWdc ground mount installation sitting on a 22 acre parcel utilizing AP-Alternatives Fixed Tilt Ground Mounted Racking, Canadian Solar Modules and Canadian Solar Inverters. In addition to the design, engineering and construction services provided by H&H Solar, the company also handled the procurement and permitting for the project. Because accessibility to the site was a challenge, the construction of 2,000 feet of service roads was required for a successful installation.

Officially named the Port of Dubuque Solar Garden, the second project’s 1.2 MW capacity is located on a 5 acre parcel that was originally an industrial site which created a litany of problems and challenges.

According to Dave Garner, Project Developer for H&H Solar, “This was an extremely challenging project, not because of its scope, but because it was an industrial site located adjacent to downtown Dubuque. Thoughtful consideration by our engineers and designers was required to workaround factors of density, bike and pedestrian paths, and ornamental fencing, for instance, and these types of issues aren’t necessarily what we deal with in many other solar projects we design and construct.”

2017 Solar Builder Project of the Year Winners

The Port of Dubuque Solar Garden features ground-mounted, fixed tilt ballasted racking from Solar Flex and Solar Modules and Inverters from Canadian Solar. The installation provides power to the grid at 13.8 kV and features a Learning Center that offers information about the site to the public.

Combined, these two projects are expected to power 850 homes from their 19,160 panels that rest on a total of 27 acres. These sites will be the catalyst for additional solar projects throughout Iowa which has traditionally relied on wind energy as their primary source for alternative energy.

— Solar Builder magazine

Mounting Pressure: Today’s large-scale PV boom demands new levels of service from racking companies

Solar FlexRack

For the first time ever, in 2016, U.S. solar ranked as the No. 1 source of new electric generating capacity additions on an annual basis. In total, solar accounted for 39 percent of new capacity additions across all fuel types, and these big numbers are coming via big installs as the utility-scale segment grew 145 percent from 2015.

“In a banner year for U.S. solar, a record 22 states each added more than 100 MW,” says Cory Honeyman, GTM Research’s associate director of U.S. solar research. “While U.S. solar grew across all segments, what stands out is the double-digit gigawatt boom in utility-scale solar, primarily due to solar’s cost competitiveness with natural gas alternatives.”

The trend shows no signs of reversing, and as utility-scale solar projects continue to boom, the industry demand for material and logistical services will keep increasing pressure on suppliers like never before.

Raw materials bottleneck

“It’s a simple matter of supply and demand,” says Chuck Galbreath, VP of supply chain at SunLink. “If I have more time, I can find more options and drive down costs. When schedules are compressed and I’m forced into a tight delivery window, I have to go with the supplier who is able to deliver in the time allotted, which allows less room for negotiation.”

Others agree: “We often encounter requests for expedited finished product that can be more aggressive than the lead times from the steel mills. For our proprietary racking systems, OMCO is now maintaining a responsible level of steel inventory to support these instances,” states Todd Owen, General Manager of OMCO Solar.

The time pinch has led to more in-house manufacturing. “The top five racking manufacturers have reached economies of scale where additional volume no longer decreases price, forcing manufacturers to vertically integrate by producing more parts and material in-house,” says Paul Benvie, VP of engineering at TerraSmart.

Because the sector is so dependent upon the steel market, finished product pricing can be volatile. The recent anti-dumping lawsuits spurred market increases that were felt in all steel industries, including solar. Benvie says TerraSmart has countered the pricing roller coaster by making strategic hedge buys and leaning on suppliers to honor and hold pricing so they are capable of manufacturing product at a reliable price point.

To help combat delivery delays, more mounting companies also are establishing regional centers. “Steel delivered to and from opposite coasts can have a significant impact on costs and schedules,” Benvie says. “Strategic manufacturers have set up facilities that are centrally located and/or have different branches at opposite ends of the country. For example, TerraSmart has opened a new manufacturing facility in Columbus, Ohio, and can manufacture identical parts out of the Southeast, Southwest and New England.”

RELATED: We look at the value decentralized tracker systems bring to a project 

Timelines keep shrinking

“As the solar industry matures and adopts the more typical rigid large-scale construction approach to project schedules, timelines have been compressed and suppliers are now expected to adhere to strict, tight daily schedules,” says Nick Troia, VP of corporate quality and project management at SunLink. “It is a more professional atmosphere that in some cases is straining the less sophisticated suppliers.”

The compression is substantial: “We ask customers for a 12-week lead time, but in this market we are lucky if we get eight,” says Larry Reeves, a project manager for Array Technologies Inc. (ATI). “Schedules are crazy now.”

Seasonal variations also intensify weather constraints. “The solar industry is challenging, as many financiers, developers and EPCs push to close projects out in Q4,” Benvie says. “In New England, this can be increasingly challenging with projects kicking off as the daylight hours get shorter, temperatures drop and field conditions deteriorate.”

“Without getting into the dollars and cents, delays can be very costly, such as the triggering of liquidated damages that could accumulate at thousands of dollars per day or by hindering project completion for a tax credit deadline,” observes Troia.

Losses can be the cost of customer maintenance, too. In some of these unavoidable situations, someone involved in the project has to recognize and proactively eliminate a delay before it happens.

“We believe we are truly partners with our clients, so we commonly shoulder costs or increase productivity to minimize the sting of a delay, regardless of who caused it,” Benvie says.

Next, we look at the turnkey services and systems designed for saving time on project development.

— Solar Builder magazine

Problem Solvers: Solar site issues solved by the right mounting solution


Location: Berlin, Conn.
Size: 1.3 MW

International door and hardware manufacturer ASSA ABLOY had been making significant strides in environmental stewardship and was ready for its own clean energy installation. But there was a problem — the selected site had difficult topography, with slopes as steep as 20 percent in some areas.

The cost and time associated with grading the site could have stopped the project in its tracks, as no other site was available on the property.


Standard racking systems can require significant grading when the site slope exceeds 7 degrees, creating cost challenges that could hinder the ROI on the deal, making project financing extremely difficult.
Rolling topography meant that either multiple rack types would need to be used (not a feasible solution), or the entire site would have to be graded to the same level (an expensive solution).

A racking system that could accommodate different types of terrain while still delivering uniform installation and performance was an absolute necessity.

DCE Solar’s Contour DB system was the best choice for this scenario due to its flexibility and ability to accommodate a greater degree of topographical changes. The Contour DB (driven beam) and Contour GS (ground screw) are economical ground-mount products between the material, installation and lower cost wiring methods. As a continuously connected system, this design minimizes the number of foundations. Minimal foundations means fewer connections, resulting in reduced hardware and installation costs.

Grading the site would have cost upward of $75,000. This savings was applied directly to the job cost, offsetting 50 percent of the cost of the racking system just by selecting the Contour DB. The quicker installation compared against one that included grading the site allowed ASSA ABLOY to start utilizing lower-cost clean energy sooner.

Contact: (704) 650-7474


METZ Residence

Location: Salem, Ore.
Size: 12 kW


One thing the solar panel installer didn’t realize before getting out to the jobsite is that the profile of a corrugated metal roof changes over time. The peaks and valleys don’t retain their shape as the roof begins to sag with age. It’s difficult to find the right metal attachment to fit this specific metal roof profile.


SunModo’s RidgeBridge Mount can handle corrugated roof peak height variation. The RidgeBridge Mount is supplied with durable EPDM water resistant gaskets, and EPDM filler gaskets if needed, which allows the installer to compensate for peak-to-peak variations along the roof. The RidgeBridge also has the flexibility to be installed directly into the rafter using a 5/16 in. lag screw or firmly attach to the purlin or roof decking with the use of two self-tapping screws. With different bracket sizes and gasket types, SunModo’s RidgeBridge Metal Roof Mount can fit 90 percent of all rolled metal roof profiles.



Bradley Road project

Location: Snow Hill, N.C.
Size: 7 MW


As part of a portfolio of projects with Ecoplexus, this array on Bradley Road in Snow Hill, N.C., had a high water table along with extremely low bearing load soils.


AP Alternatives’ shallow helical anchors were able to hold the loads even in the poor soil conditions. To combat the high water table, a 6-in. helix at 32-in. deep was utilized.

The company’s Advanced Modular ground-mount system is perfect for large commercial and utility-scale solar projects. Its prepanelized cartridges allow for rapid installation in the field and drastically reduce labor costs in high wage areas. The racking is fully preassembled and includes module installation with grounding prior to site delivery. Engineered cross bracing, high strength steel and anchor testing on every site makes it one of the most rigid systems on the market. The system is designed specifically for high snow load and high wind areas.



Walworth Solar Project

Location: Walworth, N.Y.
Size: 1.6 MW


When post installation began on the site numerous posts were hitting refusals. The inconsistency of the soils at the site would require multiple solutions. In order to keep the project on an important deadline, action and resolution needed to be achieved quickly.


The problem was identified onsite on a Friday. Solar FlexRack responded by overnighting pull test equipment and mobilizing a crew to perform pull testing onsite on Saturday. The data and information was being communicated with Solar FlexRack Director of Engineering and Geotechnical Engineer as it was collected. Based on the results of the testing and analysis the SFR Engineering team was able to determine multiple solutions for the varying conditions resulting in the most cost effective and timely solution to the issues. The stamped alternate designs were implemented on that Monday. The quick mobilization, on site pull testing, and analysis allowed the project to stay on schedule with minimal impact to the client. The project was therefore completed on budget and on time.

The FlexRack Series G3-X fixed-tilt racking system from Solar FlexRack is a custom, precision-engineered system designed to reduce project costs by optimizing materials and reducing labor and logistics costs in the field. The G3-X can accommodate any module type, is available in portrait or landscape, and offers integrated bonding and wire management. The system is also designed to handle various site conditions by being able to accommodate up to a 20 percent slope in the east-west direction and can be mounted to any type of foundation.



Dresden Municipal Building

Location: Dresden, ON 
Size: 368.25 kW


Flush mount layout for pitched metal roof and low-tilt, low-ballast mounting for a flat roof section where a high roof density system was required in an area with considerable snow load.


HB Solar designed and delivered its SKYRACK flush-mount rail-based racking for the pitched metal roof with aisles and walkways for easy O&M access. For the low ballast system, BLOCKMOUNT2 was used with the modules oriented in portrait with module clamping in the green zone to provide superior module support for the local snow loads. The building manager is a long-time employee who has reported significant energy savings as a result of the PV system acting as a second skin on the building, increasing efficiency.



Essex Energy

Location: Tecumseh, Ontario, Ca
Size: 508.76 kW


Essex Energy determined that a PV array should be installed in the town of Tecumseh, and the Tecumseh Arena was the logical choice to play host to the PV system as it is the largest municipal rooftop area available in the town and is also the town’s single largest user of electricity. The trick would be installing without a single penetration of the roof or voiding any roof warranties, which was a big concern. Plus, it needed to be extremely cost effective.


Between S-5!, the panel manufacturer and Essex Energy’s engineers, a unique design was implemented. Over 6,000 of the S-5! U Mini clamps and PV Kits were utilized to complete the installation, which requires no roof penetration. A 14-in. walkway was incorporated between every second row of panels, while still maximizing the number of panels installed. The walkways allow for easy navigation without having to walk across panels, facilitates easy roof inspection and maintenance and essentially makes every panel easily accessible. The flexibility in the application of the S-5! products was key in allowing this design consideration. Their light weight, low cost and ease of installation afforded the project tremendous savings and improved economic and financial performances across the board. The S-5-PV Kit is one of the first solar module mounting solutions in the industry to be listed to the new UL subject 2703, and an ETL listing to UL 1703. The S-5-PV Kit’s stainless steel mounting disk has 12 nodes designed to ensure the module-to-module conductivity of anodized aluminum module frames.


— Solar Builder magazine