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

VOTE: 2015 Solar Builder Project of the Year Awards — Roof-mounted

Bishop O’Dowd High School

BOD South Side ArrayOakland, Calif.
Completed: Aug. 1, 2015
Size: 50.960 kW

Bishop O’Dowd High School has a two-story classroom building facing southeast. The classrooms get very hot during the day when classes are in session. They want to reduce the heat to improve the learning experience of the students. They either had to install air conditioning or create an awning to shade the windows. They opted to create an awning structure that uses solar panels to create shade and electricity. The new solar (PV) powered awning shade structure improves the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) for students and faculty by reducing temperatures by 7 to 10 degrees on the south side of the building. It is also more financially sustainable at just 10 percent of the cost of an expensive energy intensive air-conditioning system. Additionally, at a count of nearly 200 solar panels, the project aims to generate $15,000 worth of electricity energy savings each year. Finally, O’Dowd can be proud to take another step forward in its environmentally sustainable goal to be zero-net energy and reduce overall GHG emissions. The teachers have given the system high praise.

Developer: John Orfali
Contractor: Save a Lot Solar
Module: Trina Solar
Inverter: Enphase
Mounting: Iron Ridge

Camillus House

Camillus House Energy ProjectMiami, Fla.
Completed: June 16, 2015
Size: 20.7 KW

The Camillus House Energy Project is the result of an experimental course to incorporate a hands-on approach to philanthropy for students at Florida International University. Communication Arts student Chloe Danielle Castro won the grant for IDEAS For Us, an international sustainability NGO based in Orlando, whose mission is to develop and implement solutions that create a better and more sustainable future for all. As the course progressed, the idea was for the project to benefit others as well as the environment. So together, she and the team at IDEAS For Us created an energy project concept by identifying a set of practical goals that would have the largest community impact. Along with other initiatives (LED lights, smart thermostats) they added a 20-kW solar array on one of the Camillus House residencies. The benefits of this bi-fold plan will help to lower utility bills for Camillus House, and power a portion of their building from clean renewable energy, ultimately allowing them to allocate more funding to their mission of helping people in need. The local contractors included Citizen Energy, and Advanced Green Technologies, both who made hefty contributions to the project. The project also received a solar grant from FPL, which allowed for the team to double the solar array from 10 kW to 20 kW.

Developer: IDEAS For Us
Contractor: Advanced Green Technologies (AGT Solar) / Citizen Energy
Module: HANWHA Solar One, 305W Polycrystalline Photovoltaic Modules
Inverter: Sungrow SGKU-60KW inverters
Mounting: Panel Claw – Polar Bear III Flatroof Mounting System

Be Like Brit

Grand Goave, Haiti
Completed: Nov. 28, 2014
Size: 30 kW

In January 2010, Britney Gengel, a 19-year-old student from Massachusetts was killed in the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti while volunteering in one of the country’s local orphanages. To honor Brit, her family started a foundation and built a 22,000-sq-ft earthquake-proof orphanage shaped in the letter B, for Brit, in Grand Goave, Haiti. Prior to the installation, Be Like Brit got its electricity from the local utility, which was unreliable and cost the organization around $4,000 per month. Solect, along with two local subcontractor partners from Massachusetts, sponsored two installation team members to travel to Haiti to lead the installation. Solect donated 50 solar panels to the orphanage in order to manage construction costs for the organization and ensure that more of the non-profit’s donations could be used to provide care for the children, instead of paying for electricity. The finished project now provides 60% of the electrical needs of the orphanage. The project is one of a kind in that it utilizes large-scale battery storage for a commercial project. The battery system for Be Like Brit consists of 48 two-volt batteries, which is an incredibly large amount of back-up power for a system of this size.

Developer: Solect Energy
Contractor: Solect Energy/ Downing Electric
Module: Canadian Solar
Inverter: Magnum
Mounting: Iron Ridge

Schaedler Yesco Distribution

solar Pennsylvania distributorHarrisburg, Pa.
Completed: May 18, 2015
Size: 1.53 KW

Schaedler-Yesco Distribution had some inventory they acquired a few years ago while solar was booming in Pennsylvania that had been sitting on the shelves in recent years. Upper management wanted to discard or dispose of the excess inventory but their energy manager was reluctant to get rid of it. Contractor Edwin L. Heim Co. had discussions with them and offered its labor for both systems if they could supply materials for both. The Schaedler Yesco first system now ties into a 225 amp panel, at 120/208 volt three-phase four wire. In the future, the Engage cable can be extended to serve 18 additional microinverters to complete circuit one. The second system is similar except the tie-in was to a 200 amp single phase panel. This complete system would be 35 microinverters and modules (8.925 KW total). The six microinverters now will become seven in the future on circuit one. Two more circuits can be added in the future for 14 microinverters and modules on each circuit. The infrastructure was designed and sized for the complete system at the beginning.

Developer: None
Contractor: Edwin L. Heim Co.
Module: REC Solar
Inverter: Enphase
Mounting: Ballasted Roof Racking/ AET

University of Miami Frost School of Music

University of Miami solar awardCoral Gables, Fla.
Completed: Jan. 7, 2015
Size: 71.5 kW

Designed by award-winning architects Yann Weymouth and HOK, and constructed by Skanska USA, the University of Miami’s new Frost School of Music facility boasts two buildings with 41,089 sq ft of upscale teaching spaces and beautiful curb appeal. Located on UM’s Coral Gables campus, the Patricia Louise Frost Music Studios is seeking to be the first LEED Platinum certified building in the City of Coral Gables, Fla. Additionally, the completed rooftop solar arrays are built to withstand 180 mph wind speeds, qualified for a 20-year NDL on all penetration flashings from the roofing manufacturer and helped the building qualify for two LEED points in the energy efficiency category. The roof system from Siplast was unique because of the LEED point acquired through the Eco Active cap sheet and the ability to bundle the light-weight concrete decking and mod bit roofing system under the same 20-year warranty. The completed solar arrays will offset 13% of the building’s total energy consumption and produce 101.344 MWh annually.

Developer: HOK (Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaun, Inc.
Contractor: Skanska USA Building Inc.
Module: Canadian Solar
Inverter: SMA
Mounting: Sunlink

WaterShed Sustainability

Rockville, MD
Completed: April 7, 2015
Size: 11 kW

In the summer of 2014, Standard Solar partnered with Pepco to develop an innovative behind-the-meter solar microgrid demonstration project at the WaterShed Sustainability Center in Rockville, Md. It is a rare installation for both its technology integration as well as its behind-the-meter project type. The solar microgrid project was developed in a public setting designed to highlight the system’s capabilities. Pepco’s WaterShed Sustainability Center showcases a variety of environmental initiatives and seeks to educate the public about energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly practices. Incorporating grid-integrated storage with solar PV has the potential to reduce overall PV project costs and offers new benefits to hosts, including backup power, demand reduction and peak shaving. The system can seamlessly charge and discharge from the grid, islanding itself as needed to complement the electricity grid and improve load balancing. With the help of an intelligent load control system, the microgrid can increase its autonomy in a grid outage situation. The system can be configured to perform multiple functions, manually or on-demand with customer programming.

Developer: Pepco Holdings
Contractor: Standard Solar
Module: Siliken
Inverter: Princeton Power Systems
Mounting: DPW

Now… vote!
Check out the Ground-mounted nominees

— Solar Builder magazine

2015 Solar Mounting Product Showcase

For every project, location, budget and situation in the solar building landscape, there are a variety of mounting solutions to consider. So, what’s right for your project? And what can the latest mounting technology do today that wasn’t possible several years ago? Our 2015 Solar Mounting Product Showcase hopes to answer these questions, give you a better idea of what’s available in the market and feature products that will make your next project a success.

Fronius Hinged Mounting Systems

Fronius USAFronius hinged mounts has a line of string inverters known as SnapINverters that offer a variety of unique mounting opportunities to best serve the solar market. A key benefit to the design of these SnapINverters is the hinged mounting system, which allows for rapid install times and an easy swivel snap system. The Fronius SnapINverters include the Fronius Galvo (single phase, transformer, 1.5-3 kW), the Fronius Primo (single phase, dual MPPT, 3.8-8.2 kW) and the Fronius Symo (three phase, dual MPPT, 10-24 kW). The Fronius Symo offers a flat-roof mount commercial solution to NEC 2014 without additional hardware. The residential units, the Fronius Galvo and Fronius Primo, can be conveniently mounted and installed in under 15 minutes. For more info, visit fronius.com.

— Solar Builder magazine