Solar Power Northeast takeaways: Solar’s Catch 22 options for navigating politicians, utilities and the public

solar power northeast 2019

The Northeast is a mature solar market already, but how can it keep on growing from here? Solar Power Northeast in Boston last week offered some ideas, but to me, mostly highlighted the complex utility-politician-public dynamic that leads to a lot of Catch 22 solutions. See if you can follow my scattered notes (and logic) here.

  • SEPA listed a focus on changing regulatory process to keep up with the pace of innovation as one of its goals going forward. This would be our top goal too, if we could vote. Even though it inherently sounds impossible, it also sounds like a “duh” idea. You mean the ways in which we govern and build society should match the tools and industries of the moment, and not those from 100 years ago? I don’t know. Let’s deliberate this for the next 10 years first. 

 

  • From the stage in the opening session, Representative Thomas A. Golden Jr., Massachusetts House of Representatives, explained how to best approach a representative when advocating for solar energy. He noted just how many people a representative is hearing from, all day every day, from a wide swath of industries, which means every meeting must provide a quick 101 of the issues at hand. But my main takeaway: Even if an idea is no-brainer common sense, if the representative doesn’t think there will be a groundswell of votes from their constituents, then they won’t be that interested.

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  • But the thing is: the populace does seem interested! SEIA’s numbers show that even 74 percent of GOP voters want government to do more with solar. During the opening session, Lynda Tocci, Principal at Dewey Square, an advocacy group, echoed this. From her view, solar should be a pretty easy sell because there is a message in solar for everyone – libertarians, conservatives, liberals.

 

  • But back to what Golden was saying, it is easy for someone to have interest in solar as a concept, but still be misinformed about its actual value here in 2019. This is Golden’s point. He understands that the value proposition of solar has changed so much over the last few years because this is an area he focuses on, but he knows it is not common enough knowledge among everyday people.

 

  • So, how does it become common knowledge? Tocci suggested the opportunity here is for solar installers to bridge the gap and tie advocacy efforts into their sales and marketing. Maybe providing a kit or an easy way for customers to advocate on solar’s behalf after they install a system. Or maybe mailers that make the show how regulatory decisions are tied to their energy bills. “Making an investment in advocacy is business development,” she says.

 

  • I like Tocci’s idea, and I get Golden’s point. But here’s my question is: why should it still be on solar installers to be the main group pushing along this ground swell? Knowing all we know about solar technology and its value now, isn’t this like asking plumbers to advocate for the value of indoor plumbing? When do representatives have an obligation to make informed decisions in everyone’s best interest from their more informed vantage point? Or better yet, utilities. Proactive utilities play a huge role, if they choose to, in helping to drive renewable energy demand, which would not just lower customer bills but also CAC costs. More solar adoption is tied to lower solar costs.

 

  • SEPA is playing a role in this effort. Gregory Dudkin, President, Electric Utilities for PPL Electric Utilities, mentioned that after hearing about Hawaii’s problems after connecting PV in abundance without the plan in place to deal with it, PPL Electric became proactive. Pennsylvania isn’t known for its solar industry yet, but PPL Electric realized its responsibility anyway and is ready to not just deal with large amounts of PV, but to encourage it. Thanks to its new automated system, it is now responding to 75 percent of residents’ solar project approval in 24 hours (soon to be 85 percent.)

 

  • But there are certainly challenges here too. Dudkin also said Pennsylvania floated legislation for EV infrastructure, but received a lot of pushback from the public feeling it was “just subsidizing rich people getting Teslas.” Which is a sentiment you can certainly understand.

 

So, there you have it. We all just need to figure out how to get public utilities, politicians and people all on the same page. Shouldn’t be that hard, right?

— Solar Builder magazine

Need for Speed: Inside the upgrades to the most powerful microinverter on the market

Today’s solar systems require a more robust communication architecture to manage significantly more data points and in-field software updates, and this need was the driving force behind APsystems’s newest microinverter. Despite being the most powerful microinverter you’ll find on the market, the QS1 debuted rather quietly at Solar Power International last year — a debut that even caught director of marketing Jason Higginson off-guard. But hey, when a product is ready, it’s ready.

Key to the QS1 development was incorporating a high-speed wireless Zigbee connection instead of Power Line Communication (PLC). The difference is measured in speed of both installation (75 percent reduction in installation time) and data transmission.

“With the smart grid, and a very smart inverter, there are a considerable number of data points that need to be communicated back from the microinverters through the gateway and to the monitoring platform in the cloud,” Higginson explains. “This means a steady stream of data is constantly flowing from the inverter to the internet. When systems like the QS1 and YC600 apply remote firmware upgrades, this creates a demanding bidirectional data flow and, for MLPE systems, traditional powerline communication isn’t going to cut it.”

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The QS1 employs high-speed wireless Zigbee, which is up to three times faster than conventional powerline communication (PLC), creating a local 2.4GHz mesh network for fast and reliable data communication between the microinverters and the gateway.

The QS1 is positioned to maximize high output PV panels up to 375 W by providing a higher peak output power (a microinverter-leading 300 W AC output per channel) and a wider MPPT voltage range (22V-48V) that allows for bettering tracking and energy harvest during low light conditions of dawn and dusk.

“It also features four individual MPPT so each PV module is managed and tracked separately, which means things that affect a single panel such as shading or debris do not affect the output from the rest of the panel even if they’re connected to the same microinverter,” Higginson says.

APsystems QS1 Microinverter Datasheet

Compatibility

An APststems calling card is reducing the number of microinverter units needed per project. Only one QS1 unit is needed for every four modules (instead of the standard 1:1 ratio) while still providing four independent MPPT. This means fewer units to stock, transport and install while costing less than the equivalent of four individual microinverters. There are shared components that reduce the overall cost per watt by comparison.

But it’s not all shiny new performance numbers and doodads — APsystems kept the AC trunk cabling common with its dual-module YC600, which adds a hugely important flexible, mix-and-match compatibility on the same circuit to enhance site design capability and maximize circuit capacity.

“Using an even number of PV modules is ideal, however, with the APsystems 4-in-1 and 2-in-1 cost advantages, even if there are an odd number of PV modules in the array, leaving one side of a YC600 unused doesn’t significantly impact the cost per Watt of the system,” Higginson says.

Both microinverters also utilize the same gateways, so installers can choose the ECU-R for single or multi-residential installations or the ECU-C for applications requiring consumption monitoring and advanced contact/relay features.

“Compatibility with the existing YC600 microinverter system gives the QS1 an unprecedented advantage,” says APsystems chief technology officer Yuhao Luo. “Mixing dual and quad microinverters in the same system adds design flexibility while offering a strong inventory and installation labor advantage over conventional microinverters.”

Chris Crowell is the managing editor of Solar Builder.

— Solar Builder magazine

Snowlar Builder: We look at the opportunity of solar development in Northern latitudes

GP Joule

A snow covered project completed by GP Joule in Lake Waconia, Minn.

Solar power is starting to bolster the energy capacity in northern climes, especially across Canada and Alaska where diesel generators take the cost of electricity sky high. Both fixed-tilt and tracker installations are expanding rapidly in this region, as advancing solar technology helps cope with bitter cold and erratic daylight.

The sun can be elusive in the north. Between the spring and fall equinox, the Arctic region — including Fairbanks, Alaska, at a latitude of about 65 degrees — receives over 12 hours of daylight, but during the long winter sunlight can fall to only 10 percent of the summer peak. The extremes for the length of an Arctic day can range from 3.5 hours in winter to 22 hours in summer.

The combined potential of direct and indirect or diffuse light available in the north is enticing though. Research cited by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) indicates that there are 230 more hours of possible sunlight at the Arctic Circle than at the equator. The winter holds a steady snow blanket on the ground, yielding one of the highest natural levels of albedo, or reflected light, at 70 to 80 percent of direct sunlight. This bodes well for the use of bifacial solar panels, which today can raise the energy yield by around 10 percent with more field testing expected to increase the bifacial boost by 20 percent or more over monofacial panels.

“We are not under any illusions that solar will not be a tough build, but cost has come down, so now it finally pencils out,” says Christopher Pike, a researcher at ACEP.

Thanks to the general decline in the cost of solar and the recent cost reduction in bifacial panel manufacturing, solar is becoming a more promising renewable energy solution in the northern latitudes. Indeed, one estimate of solar growth in Alaska suggests that installations roughly doubled during 2017 to close to 1 MW from a small base of about 300 kW in 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Anecdotes from Alaska solar analysts suggest that the 2018 installation total could double again.

Don’t miss our Solar Installer Issue in March — subscribe to Solar Builder magazine (print or digital) for FREE today

Design and conquer

The far north is a virtual testing ground for solar reliability, particularly for trackers with moving parts, and chatting with several manufacturers focused in this region reveals a variety of tactics for conquering the elements.

“If you see a tracker system in the Arctic controlled by actuator arms that can freeze, or fragile motors or sensors, it can be a concern,” notes Lance Brown, the director of marketing at Array Technologies. “But we are seeing more and more requests for installations at higher latitude locations.”

Array did a dual-axis project in the Arctic for the Canadian government 20 years ago for a 360-degree tracker, and it is still operating now, designed to function down to -25.6 degrees F, Brown says (new trackers are tested to -29.2 degrees F). Array is currently working on a new snow stow technology that will further optimize tracker performance in heavy snow conditions. Dealing with snow load is a primary requirement in the north.

“We have installed our dual-axis Savanna in heavy snow areas in northern Ontario and have had no issues with snow load,” says Nic Morgan, VP of business development at Morgan Solar in Toronto. “We found that the dual-axis sheds snow faster than fixed or single-axis designs. We can’t compete with single-axis trackers below 40 degrees latitude, but above that, dual-axis technology can offer better yield.”

One area of expertise that Toronto-based GP Joule has developed in the cold Canadian climate is foundation engineering, with a current single-axis tracker design that utilizes up to 60 percent fewer piles — or as few as 250 per MW — than general U.S. tracker competition, providing 20 percent more steel and a more robust structure, says David Pichard, CEO of the company. The system also uses up to 20 percent fewer piles than a competing standard fixed-tilt design.

Another innovation in tracker design for snow conditions is the three-armed, dual-axis Konza Solar tracker.

“Our three-actuator design enables an unencumbered range of motion, a simpler tracking method, the lack of a grease requirement and no cardinal orientation requirement,” says Nick Moser, the director of operations for the Anchorage-based company.

Part of the challenge tracking the sun in the Arctic is moving panels through wide angles in all directions, for which dual-axis trackers are inherently designed. “The tripodal design is both inherently stable and able to enjoy a number of ingenious mechanical advantages. It handles dynamic loading extremely well by distributing loads in a way that no other tracker can,” Moser says.

GP Joule

GP Joule developed its foundation engineering approach in the cold Canadian climate with a single-axis tracker design that utilizes up to 60 percent fewer piles.

Advocates for change

While the technology is tweaked, the opportunity grows. One institution that is advocating greater use of solar energy in Alaska is the AECP in Anchorage.

“The November to February months are cold and clear, so solar panels perform well. We have been talking about solar albedo up here for a long time,” Pike says. “Our solar resource is not as good as it is in the lower 48 states, but it is about the same as in Germany.”

ACEP is particularly interested in helping small towns and villages in more remote locations ween off diesel fuel transported by truck, which can push electricity rates up to the $1 per kW level, Pike says. The ACEP has just begun a new solar field study using vertically mounted bifacial panels oriented east, west and south.

There is also more federal government support for solar and other renewables to offset diesel use in Canada, through the $400 million Arctic Energy Fund, and in Alaska, through the Alaska Renewable Energy Fund, worth about $50 million every year until 2023. Since 2008, the REF has appropriated $259 million for 287 qualifying renewable energy projects.

Consider a new solar installation in Buckland, located in Northwest Alaska, being sponsored by the Northwest Alaska’s Native Corp. (NANA) and the U.S. Department of Energy. The remote town of 400 uses over 500 kW of electricity a month at a rate of up to 47 cents per kWh. This compares to 19 cents in Anchorage and a U.S. national average of 13 cents. The alternative is heating oil, which costs $8.25 per gallon locally. So, yeah, an investment in solar energy here will help considerably.

“We expect to offset 7 percent of the town’s diesel fuel use through this solar project, and once it is operating fully, we hope to add energy storage and wind to offset a cumulative 30 percent of the town’s diesel use,” says Sonny Adams, the energy director for NANA. Diesel costs in the region range from a low of $5.75 to a high of $11.00 per gallon locally, he notes.

This project, led by NANA, provides for the cumulative installation of 500 kW among three Alaska Native Inupiat communities — Kotzebue, Buckland and Deering — “to address common energy challenges and opportunities by developing high-penetration wind-solar-battery-diesel hybrid systems through collaboration with Tribal IRA Councils, local electric utilities, a national cooperative financial institution and others,” DOE reports. DOE provided a $1 million grant for the $2 million project, which was on track to be completed in December.

Charles W. Thurston is a freelance writer covering solar energy from Northern California.

— Solar Builder magazine

Snowlar Builder: We look at the opportunity of solar development in Northern latitudes

GP Joule

A snow covered project completed by GP Joule in Lake Waconia, Minn.

Solar power is starting to bolster the energy capacity in northern climes, especially across Canada and Alaska where diesel generators take the cost of electricity sky high. Both fixed-tilt and tracker installations are expanding rapidly in this region, as advancing solar technology helps cope with bitter cold and erratic daylight.

The sun can be elusive in the north. Between the spring and fall equinox, the Arctic region — including Fairbanks, Alaska, at a latitude of about 65 degrees — receives over 12 hours of daylight, but during the long winter sunlight can fall to only 10 percent of the summer peak. The extremes for the length of an Arctic day can range from 3.5 hours in winter to 22 hours in summer.

The combined potential of direct and indirect or diffuse light available in the north is enticing though. Research cited by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) indicates that there are 230 more hours of possible sunlight at the Arctic Circle than at the equator. The winter holds a steady snow blanket on the ground, yielding one of the highest natural levels of albedo, or reflected light, at 70 to 80 percent of direct sunlight. This bodes well for the use of bifacial solar panels, which today can raise the energy yield by around 10 percent with more field testing expected to increase the bifacial boost by 20 percent or more over monofacial panels.

“We are not under any illusions that solar will not be a tough build, but cost has come down, so now it finally pencils out,” says Christopher Pike, a researcher at ACEP.

Thanks to the general decline in the cost of solar and the recent cost reduction in bifacial panel manufacturing, solar is becoming a more promising renewable energy solution in the northern latitudes. Indeed, one estimate of solar growth in Alaska suggests that installations roughly doubled during 2017 to close to 1 MW from a small base of about 300 kW in 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Anecdotes from Alaska solar analysts suggest that the 2018 installation total could double again.

Don’t miss our Solar Installer Issue in March — subscribe to Solar Builder magazine (print or digital) for FREE today

Design and conquer

The far north is a virtual testing ground for solar reliability, particularly for trackers with moving parts, and chatting with several manufacturers focused in this region reveals a variety of tactics for conquering the elements.

“If you see a tracker system in the Arctic controlled by actuator arms that can freeze, or fragile motors or sensors, it can be a concern,” notes Lance Brown, the director of marketing at Array Technologies. “But we are seeing more and more requests for installations at higher latitude locations.”

Array did a dual-axis project in the Arctic for the Canadian government 20 years ago for a 360-degree tracker, and it is still operating now, designed to function down to -25.6 degrees F, Brown says (new trackers are tested to -29.2 degrees F). Array is currently working on a new snow stow technology that will further optimize tracker performance in heavy snow conditions. Dealing with snow load is a primary requirement in the north.

“We have installed our dual-axis Savanna in heavy snow areas in northern Ontario and have had no issues with snow load,” says Nic Morgan, VP of business development at Morgan Solar in Toronto. “We found that the dual-axis sheds snow faster than fixed or single-axis designs. We can’t compete with single-axis trackers below 40 degrees latitude, but above that, dual-axis technology can offer better yield.”

One area of expertise that Toronto-based GP Joule has developed in the cold Canadian climate is foundation engineering, with a current single-axis tracker design that utilizes up to 60 percent fewer piles — or as few as 250 per MW — than general U.S. tracker competition, providing 20 percent more steel and a more robust structure, says David Pichard, CEO of the company. The system also uses up to 20 percent fewer piles than a competing standard fixed-tilt design.

Another innovation in tracker design for snow conditions is the three-armed, dual-axis Konza Solar tracker.

“Our three-actuator design enables an unencumbered range of motion, a simpler tracking method, the lack of a grease requirement and no cardinal orientation requirement,” says Nick Moser, the director of operations for the Anchorage-based company.

Part of the challenge tracking the sun in the Arctic is moving panels through wide angles in all directions, for which dual-axis trackers are inherently designed. “The tripodal design is both inherently stable and able to enjoy a number of ingenious mechanical advantages. It handles dynamic loading extremely well by distributing loads in a way that no other tracker can,” Moser says.

GP Joule

GP Joule developed its foundation engineering approach in the cold Canadian climate with a single-axis tracker design that utilizes up to 60 percent fewer piles.

Advocates for change

While the technology is tweaked, the opportunity grows. One institution that is advocating greater use of solar energy in Alaska is the AECP in Anchorage.

“The November to February months are cold and clear, so solar panels perform well. We have been talking about solar albedo up here for a long time,” Pike says. “Our solar resource is not as good as it is in the lower 48 states, but it is about the same as in Germany.”

ACEP is particularly interested in helping small towns and villages in more remote locations ween off diesel fuel transported by truck, which can push electricity rates up to the $1 per kW level, Pike says. The ACEP has just begun a new solar field study using vertically mounted bifacial panels oriented east, west and south.

There is also more federal government support for solar and other renewables to offset diesel use in Canada, through the $400 million Arctic Energy Fund, and in Alaska, through the Alaska Renewable Energy Fund, worth about $50 million every year until 2023. Since 2008, the REF has appropriated $259 million for 287 qualifying renewable energy projects.

Consider a new solar installation in Buckland, located in Northwest Alaska, being sponsored by the Northwest Alaska’s Native Corp. (NANA) and the U.S. Department of Energy. The remote town of 400 uses over 500 kW of electricity a month at a rate of up to 47 cents per kWh. This compares to 19 cents in Anchorage and a U.S. national average of 13 cents. The alternative is heating oil, which costs $8.25 per gallon locally. So, yeah, an investment in solar energy here will help considerably.

“We expect to offset 7 percent of the town’s diesel fuel use through this solar project, and once it is operating fully, we hope to add energy storage and wind to offset a cumulative 30 percent of the town’s diesel use,” says Sonny Adams, the energy director for NANA. Diesel costs in the region range from a low of $5.75 to a high of $11.00 per gallon locally, he notes.

This project, led by NANA, provides for the cumulative installation of 500 kW among three Alaska Native Inupiat communities — Kotzebue, Buckland and Deering — “to address common energy challenges and opportunities by developing high-penetration wind-solar-battery-diesel hybrid systems through collaboration with Tribal IRA Councils, local electric utilities, a national cooperative financial institution and others,” DOE reports. DOE provided a $1 million grant for the $2 million project, which was on track to be completed in December.

Charles W. Thurston is a freelance writer covering solar energy from Northern California.

— Solar Builder magazine

On the Origin of EPCs: How the EPC-supplier relationship influences the evolution of solar development

origin of epc illustration

The evolution of EPCs in the solar industry is truly that — an evolution — and not in the cliché business-speak way. For starters, large-scale solar construction is a cut-throat, survival-of-the-fittest environment. Over the years, risky business models failed and bad technology sunk, while successful concepts adapted to the volatile environment.

This process of natural selection has led to all sorts of creatures. Large EPCs that moved into ownership. Racking manufacturers handling more construction responsibilities. Roll formers sending factory-direct systems to the field. And so on. Successful companies redefining the rules as new advantages were discovered and new opportunities emerged.

With this article, we wanted to explore more of those in-between spaces — the adaptations that have been influential in the onward and upward trajectory of the solar industry’s expansion across the United States.

Learning to communicate

If you take out your microscope and examine the elements integral to the broader success of solar today, what you see is a lot of close connections, shared relationships and complementary services.

“Our best suppliers understand that we are in a long-term partnership,” says Chris Perron, SVP of EPC for Nexamp. “When they are supportive of us, we often will standardize on their equipment for efficiency, and good partners will get the bulk of our business.”

Developing relationships and complementary services is no small feat in this high stress, high stakes world of large-scale solar development. On the supplier end for example, consider how often a racking manufacturer provides a front-end design for a winning RFP bid only to lose the actual purchase order and construction to another supplier. On the EPC side, any experience standing around in a field waiting on a missing bolt or overbooked equipment to arrive will drain margins along with good will.

Executing the perfect solar project development starts with accepting that such a concept doesn’t exist. Solar projects are all going to have their obstacles, and the best EPCs are the ones most adept at working through the issues that inevitably do arise. Eric Millard, chief commercial officer at Conti Solar, says Conti contributes part of its success to developing strong supplier relationships to navigate the countless challenges they regularly face.

“Being able to work through any issues that arise is vital,” he says. “Each side of the equation needs to understand what is trying to be accomplished and work together to find the best solution.”

After accepting that risk, everyone agrees communication is a big factor in establishing trust, but what does that communication look like? At Nexamp, Perron says proactive communication with suppliers involves regular calls to lock in on delivery timelines and have the right equipment on site to load or unload as needed. Some of the biggest problems they see in the field are the wrong material being delivered, material not arriving on site when needed, suppliers not being on site to confirm accuracy and unload the product when it does arrive and not having the right equipment on site to complete delivery.

“These issues create confusion and unnecessary slowdowns that impact the overall progress of the project, which ultimately affect our bottom line,” Perron says. “With that good communication, detailed receiving becomes a breeze, which enables greater efficiency in the field and a reduction of shrinkage as a whole across all our inventory. Good communication also means that general management of the hundreds of POs we place becomes easier administratively for both of us because we know how each other thinks.”

The onus is on the supplier to engage and get this process started and have a rolling action plan and process.

“Suppliers who don’t respond to calls or emails in a timely fashion, or who don’t alert us to potential availability or delivery problems ahead of time make it harder for us to stay on track,” Perron says. “Likewise, suppliers who do not take responsibility for their mistakes and try to push the expediting costs onto us, or fail to consult us on order modifications, won’t keep our business for long. We understand that not everything goes according to plan — suppliers just need to provide real-time updates so we can come up with contingency plans to overcome obstacles.”

Nexamp changed its ordering practices over the years to standardize equipment orders as much as possible, which in turn reduced the possibility of human error on both sides. This helps suppliers by streamlining the process and lets everyone focus more on other potential challenges.

“Another area where we have improved is in jobsite delivery. We now try to arrange just-in-time delivery as much as possible so we can keep things moving and suppliers don’t have to deal with a backup of stock or materials,” Perron says.

Don’t miss our Solar Installer Issue in March — subscribe to Solar Builder magazine (print or digital) for FREE today

Hunter-gatherers

The concept of suppliers providing more than just a product has gone from novelty to expectation. Perron points to greater visibility into the supply chain as a huge new supplier development. “This makes it easier for us to plan accordingly and anticipate any obstacles before they become a serious setback,” he says.

Other positive changes Perron has seen include more generous terms and conditions, expediting options, an ability to maintain higher levels of inventory for individual companies that warrant it based on volume and, in some cases, preferential pricing.

This expectation was driven by innovations and consolidations throughout the supply chain. Consider OMCO Solar, a roll former that has been a supplier and contract manufacturer for just about every racking and tracker company you know. Over time, OMCO realized it could also provide its own factory-direct, branded racking solution, which yielded additional customer benefits.

“Companies that are able to collaborate and leverage partnerships and co-market them will drive more commitment from their customer because of that deeper level of partnership,” says Eric Goodwin, director of solar business development with OMCO Solar.

Goodwin is an advocate for business relationships that are more than transactional. One way OMCO does this is by leveraging its supply chain capabilities, such as provide a monthly index of steel pricing versus location for established customers. This is in addition to regular communication, going over cost roadmaps and collaborating on R&D and problem-solving.

“It’s good to hear from each other when it’s not just a problem,” Goodwin says. “The customers we like to grow with are the ones we can communicate with and always have each other’s back. When you have project execution issues and change orders on contracts, most of those things are impacted by not having a good kick off process or handling of expectations.”

OMCO recently implemented an internal process aimed to enhance customer touchpoints. A purchase order coming in kicks off a cadence of actions and scheduling of activities internally to keep everyone on the same page during each project. “There’s at least one communication planned each week leading up to delivery. Once we start deliveries, we have someone on site to assess everything so nothing is missed.”

OMCO is unique in that it’s also an OEM and can check everything before shipping instead of having to coordinate parts from several different locations. The delightful adage of there being fewer throats to choke.

“There will be issues in the field, but if you don’t respond and pile drivers are sitting there … we can’t let that ever happen,” Goodwin says. “Suppliers need to show root cause corrective action. When suppliers are not doing that and/or have too many balls in the air, it can impact the project or an EPC’s financials.”

Adaptation

Rough Brothers Inc. was founded in 1932 and built its name constructing greenhouses. As that segment started to slow in the 21st century, the company thought its steel roll forming expertise could be a fit in the fledgling solar industry. That move to diversify its product portfolio led to what is now RBI Solar, a leading racking supplier in the 500 kW to 2 MW solar space that can hop in at the very beginning of a project or just show up and build. The company recently acquired SolarBOS as well, which may yield even more purchasing and installation efficiency.

“We recognize how important solar mounting installation is to meet overall project deadlines, which is why we take single-point responsibility for the entire project starting from the initial design to complete mechanical installation of solar modules,” says Kevin Ward, marketing manager for RBI Solar.

CEO Matthew Skidmore says Conti Solar is a frequent customer of RBI Solar for these reasons.

“The leadership of a company sets the pace and the character of an organization. If an environment of collaboration for quality is set at the top, then that rolls through the company,” Skidmore says. “At Conti Solar, we’re striving for excellence and that is what keeps clients coming back. We’re looking for suppliers like us — ready to go above and beyond for customers.”

The RBI story is illustrative of the broader downstream streamlining trend of turnkey solutions influencing solar’s evolution. There’s also the example of Solar FlexRack, growing from Youngstown, Ohio-based aluminum extrusion fabrication company Northern States Metals, to a provider of in-house branded racking systems and turnkey services. They can handle everything from initial engineering, pull testing and foundation design to the final installation of posts, racks and modules. Its TDP Turnkey Solar Tracker even embeds the service component into the product’s identity, an indicator that it’s not just selling a tracker system but a full solution for reducing installation time and cutting operations and maintenance costs.

Conti says these days it expects companies to continue to adapt and deliver more diverse options in current product lines, expand fabrication and install services and develop more real-time material tracking.

Being able to pick and choose from a menu of services not only mitigates dependence on third-party subcontractors, but also frees up EPCs to expand and bid more jobs. This is, of course, if that supplier has earned the trust to function as an extended arm of the EPC.

plug n play

The Plug-N-Play tracker from RPCS combines Array Technologies’ tracker with eBOS suppliers Shoals,
CAB Products and Hellerman Tyton for a full solution.

Better tools

Tracker systems are abundant now, and many of your favorite racking manufacturers that don’t have one (or aren’t yet promoting one) likely will be in the coming year. This is a combination of tracker prices dropping and suppliers working to address the needs of their customers. Meanwhile, the long-established racking and tracker systems on the market have integrated new layers of installation and cost efficiencies.

RP Construction Services Inc. (RPCS), a turnkey construction company that works with Array Technologies, is promoting the Plug-N-Play Solar Tracker system, for example. In addition to the installation advantages gained from its familiarity with Array Technologies DuraTrack HZ v3 single-axis tracker, the Plug-N-Play tracker brings in eBOS suppliers Shoals, CAB Products and Hellerman Tyton for a full solution that saves thousands of feet of trench and conduit while preventing all trench-related schedule delays.

“We are coordinating directly with these various manufacturers to bring products together to form a singular solution,” says Adam Larner, VP of projects for RPCS. “Recently we saw a 28-MW project convert from trenching to above-ground Plug-n-Play halfway through the project as they analyzed and then recognized significant savings by making the switch, even midstream.”

RPCS says this new partnership has simplified its tracker project installations by reducing trenching by 50 percent (eliminating 900 to 1,100 ft of trench per MWdc), utilizing less specialized labor (for string-level electrical connections) and requiring less time (all crimping, labels, wire testing and cutting are completed in the factory). What’s more, the Plug-N-Play Tracker approach also allows for more solar panels per string and fewer combiner boxes per site, cutting cost and solar electrical complications. In all, RPCS has shown $3,000 to $5,000 in savings per MWdc for DG projects. Eben Russell, founder, president and CEO, puts it like this:

“Allowing more of the system to be built in the factory prior to mobilization drastically impacts schedules, keeps the quality level high and consistent across all sites and allows us to manage the work with fewer asset managers. Lastly, building portfolios of projects with identical and uniform high-quality leads to higher ROIs, less transactional cost per project, better control over schedules and higher asset resale value after the full tax benefits are realized.”

Perron says integration like this is the future in the supplier space, bringing more “pre-built” assemblies to the site, which leads to faster, higher quality builds.

“We try to have the suppliers do more product integration in their factories rather than us integrating in the field, leading to better quality installs,” Perron says. “Logically it makes sense. If you can integrate items in an environmentally controlled setting rather than in the field where you do not know what type of weather conditions you will face, it will always lead to higher levels of productivity and higher levels of quality.”

Product line evolution occurs in small ways too based on simple conversations. OMCO was contract manufacturing for First Solar, for example, and without being specifically asked they worked on a redesign idea for its module interface bracket to cut costs. Conversely, proactive customers will explain the pain points they see with designs. Leading up to the debut of its branded, Field-Fast racking system, Goodwin says OMCO made some tweaks to its wire management options and changed the design of its foot bracket to make it easier to package, ship and preassemble in the factory, all of which came directly from working with customers.

What’s next?

With the ITC scheduled to phase out over the next few years and the development pipeline more robust than ever, developers and independent power producers are pushing to get as many MWs installed as possible. Construction schedules will be compressed and competition will be fierce. None of that is new for the solar industry, but the context has changed. Due to the innovations and streamlined services that have emerged from EPC-supplier relationships, “the fittest” will be evolving the conditions in which solar development continues to thrive instead of merely survive.


Communication Keys

Upfront and clear expectations can help build relationships and smooth the processes of solar project construction. Conti Solar highlights these key areas for stepping up communication efforts:

Schedule
Being able to project the delivery of supplies is vital to the success of a project and staying on schedule.

Cost
Understanding the cost of the supplies up front allows developers to accurately model the total cost of the project early on. These projections are necessary for the developer to understand if the project is economically viable. You risk the project not being able to pencil if the supplier raises cost.

Issues
Mitigating risks and potential issues up front is the backbone of trusted EPCs. When issues arise, having a strong relationship with a supplier who is committed to working through a project’s success is a sought-after partner.

Engineering
Getting the right data up front to bid correctly with geotech, borings, etc., is another important element. It sounds simple, but there are myriad complexities to the equation.

Chris Crowell is the managing editor of Solar Builder.

— Solar Builder magazine