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.

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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.

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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

Countdown to 2020, part 1: The role solar plays in California’s new building efficiency standards

countdown to 2020

Installment 1:

New Builds, New You

Enter the Twilight Zone with me. Tomorrow, we wake up in a reality where solar energy is a standard component of all new homes built across the United States. Between that day and 2026, more solar energy capacity would be installed on just new homes than the entire U.S. currently has installed to this point. By 2045, solar installations on new homes alone would total 203 GW. Imagine the ripple effects.

OK, now wake up.

That’s not the world we live in, but the day feels much closer. Starting in 2020, that will be California’s reality thanks to the California Energy Commission’s (CEC) 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. Here’s how the California Solar and Storage Association (CALSSA) breaks down the opportunity for us:

“Each year there are roughly 120,000 residential solar installs (105,000 retrofit on existing homes and 15,000 on new homes). California averages 75,000 to 80,000 new homes built per year. So, this new rule will see an increase from 15,000 to 80,000 new solar homes (65,000) each year. If retrofit stays the same (roughly 105,000/year), that increases overall installations to 185,000 per year, or a 54 percent increase over the current 120,000 installs per year.

“If the average system size for a new solar home is 3.5 kW [a rough guess based on minimum system size of 2.5 kW], the additional 65,000 installations will result in an additional 225 MW. Compared to the total current market of customer-sited solar in California of approximately 1,100 MW, this is an increase of 20 percent.”

My guess is after the results of California’s experiment, like skateboarding and West Coast IPAs, this cool new trend will work its way across the country and get us closer to that Twilight Zone scenario. At last count 100 cities across the country have announced timelines to source 100 percent of their energy needs from renewable sources (Cincinnati being No. 100), with several already mulling their own version of California’s blueprint (places as off the solar radar as Milwaukee).

This is why we’re spending all of 2019 considering the impact of California’s new building standards in this year-long news series, Countdown to 2020. To kick things off, let’s do a deep dive into everything notable about the Building Energy Efficiency Standards as they are written.

Efficiency equation

The addition of the solar mandate grabbed the headlines, but systems won’t just be plopped onto homes that don’t make sense. The CEC’s 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards include PV as just one piece of an integrated, forward-thinking step toward a zero net metering world. Some key elements:

Flexibility. The mandate allows for homebuilders to offset some or all of the required solar PV capacity by providing access to community solar systems. Homes in this bucket are those with less than 80 contiguous sq ft of unshaded roof area due to shading from permanent structures.

Sensible sizing. A home’s solar system must be “appropriately sized” to generate the amount of electricity used by the home over the course of a year, based on the square footage of the home, the number of dwelling units and the climate zone. Tailoring system size in this way, and not overbuilding, is important for keeping system costs reasonable and curtailing the excess generation sent back to the grid.

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With solar panels being standard, homebuilders can then design homes and developments to maximize the energy a system can produce with roof angles or panels placed on multiple planes and directions to capture exposure during different times of the day. Closer partnerships between solar companies and homebuilders would help lessen design costs, for example, by encouraging the creation of standardized models of home energy systems. Solar installers could also take advantage of the opportunity to install panels on multiple homes at the same time to reduce labor, permitting and even supply chain costs. We will be diving into this area much more in future articles in this series.

Efficiency focus. Increasing energy efficiency is just as critical in this new world as the solar mandate. Consider that the average single-family home in the U.S. would need over 9 kW of solar panels to match its electricity usage when the average size of a residential solar system is around 7.4 kW. According to the “Solar Homes: The Next Step for Clean Energy” report, co-authored by the Environment America Research and Policy Center and the Frontier Group in December 2018, some states would even need 15 kW of solar just to meet their average home electricity consumption needs, which is just not practical.

Enter efficiency upgrades. That Solar Homes report notes that efficiency improvements saved 58 quadrillion btu of energy in 2014, almost 60 percent of total energy consumption that year. Further energy efficiency improvements could reduce electricity demand by another 40 to 60 percent by 2050.

The CEC also updated the thermal envelope standards that limit how much heat is transferred in and out of buildings (and the ventilation requirements for residential and nonresidential buildings to reduce indoor air pollution and efficient lighting requirements for nonresidential buildings). All of these solar + efficiency standards are projected to cut household energy use by 50 percent.

The benefits of solar are magnified further when builders and homeowners incorporate electric appliances during home construction. On average, heating and hot water systems consume 62 percent of the energy used in U.S. homes. This standard would encourage builders to ensure that a home’s main circuit breaker has the right ratings to accommodate PV systems and that the installed conduits from the inverters to the panels are placed so as to reduce losses from energy transmission.

Storage standard. All of the above will accomplish quite a bit just based on 2018 prices, but crucially the standards also encourage the adoption of residential energy storage systems by counting them toward the energy efficiency requirements. Batteries are still expensive, but coming down in price. Sven Lindström, CEO of Swedish solar energy technology company Midsummer, believes that the long-term profile of residential storage will have exactly the same curve and market shift as PV panels.

“From today’s ~$1,000/kWh, I think we will sooner than expected reach $100/kWh,” he says. “Quality from China will become good enough to dominate the market. This is great news for all consumers. With smart inverters and batteries, the grid could be seen as just a backup solution for most households.”

Add to that the passage of SB 700, which reauthorizes the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) for five years, extending rebates for consumers through 2025. CALSSA says this will add up to $800 million for storage and other emerging clean energy technologies, resulting in a total investment of $1.2 billion for customer-sited energy storage and “do for storage what the Million Solar Roof Initiative did” to drive the solar industry in the state. The current prediction is nearly 3 GW of energy storage systems at schools, farms, homes, nonprofits and businesses in California by 2026.

Add it up

Reading the California Energy Commission’s 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards together, a new vision of homeownership emerges, an acknowledgment that these parcels of private property are still very much tied into the collective of the community and must be operated and maintained as such by taking advantage of breakthroughs in technology.

Critics of these updates have a right to be worried about the additional costs added to home construction, especially considering the existing exorbitant home prices in California. But unlike gentrification, the cause for this price inflation (about $9,500) will improve community air quality, provide energy resilience and save homebuyers an average of $19,000 in energy and maintenance costs over 30 years. Even non-solar homeowners stand to benefit in this collective march to the future because, if planned for correctly, DG can lower rates for all utility customers. Consider that the average price of electricity bought from U.S. utilities rises by 2.2 percent each year, according to a report from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in September 2018. These new building standards would end the days of unpredictable swings in utility electricity costs.

The question we will look at next issue is where exactly today’s solar installers fit into this collective opportunity.

— Solar Builder magazine

Side Business: Three solar contractors discuss selling, constructing solar-covered patios

Skylift

The Skylift is a new mounting product designed for attaching to an existing roof, grounding one end of the patio while elevating the ceiling and solar array.

Solar-covered patios are a niche product worth exploring as part of your solar business. The first step in pursuing these projects is knowing they aren’t for everyone. Many solar customers are interested in cost per watt, so pitching an addition that comes in around $7 per watt will stop conversations. This doesn’t mean it’s a dead end, just that they require a different sales and marketing approach and locating the right, easy-to-install solution.

What’s the market?

Andrew Read at Voltage River had high hopes for pursuing solar patios out in southern California, considering the high-income customer base and year-round outdoor living in the area, but he found that traditional advertising didn’t get the return he needed.

“Finding customers for this is not easy,” Read says. “I wanted it to be bigger than it is, and I did push it for a bit but have backed off trying to market it.”

Instead, he lets most of the business come to him via referrals from a cadre of high-end architects and builders. Approaching the market this way has been a success.

“We sell them for a high price because of what they are: a statement piece. Anyone looking to get out from under an electric bill, it’s not the system for them,” he says.

Region matters here more than in the standard residential PV business. John Hunter at Florida-based Premium Solar Patios, for example, is a bit more bullish on the current market for the solar patio, calling it “astounding.”

“We have seen a major influx of interest from your average homeowner to track homebuilders,” he says. “Today we are fulfilling orders from dealers around the country as well as installing sales from our inside sales teams.”

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One angle that has worked for Hunter is in HOA developments that make it difficult for homeowners to go solar. The solar patios they install are often a way around HOA rooftop aesthetic issues. They also can be placed anywhere on a property to get the best direct sunlight if the home is shaded.

But a word of warning: You think regular solar permitting is annoying, try coordinating between one person for the patio itself and then another person for the solar portion.

“It can land on a desk of someone used to seeing one thing, they don’t know what to do with it and then you get stuck in the washing machine of bureaucracy,” Read says, noting it took him six months to get one project through in Laguna Beach.

Construction

Once you are ready to pursue solar patios, the question is whether you want to also get into the patio construction business and offer a turnkey solution or just handle the solar piece and contract out the rest.

“The people good at doing this are the same that build regular patio covers because it’s an extension of what they do,” Read says. “From my experience, solar guys get hung up on patio covers. The patio cover structure guys can build that pretty easily, and then I can bring in a contractor just to wire up the panels and get it plugged into the main circuit.”

Premiums Solar says a solar patio installation, in most cases with an experienced crew, will take three days, due to the concrete drying time and footer/house attachment inspections where required. Vince McClellan with Solar Energy Design calculates a typical job takes about a third longer than mounting the array on the roof.

“After the structure is up, our Solar Rainframe system installs in about the same time as a typical solar array mounted on a roof,” McClellan says. He notes the market for solar patios is just starting. His company’s Solar Rainframe racking system (originally designed for parking structures) creates a water shedding roof using standard framed solar electric modules — a design built with 10 years of experience designing and building BIPV canopies. It uses no seals or gaskets and creates a weatherized roof out of standard solar modules, meaning there is no need for a separate roof under the solar array because the solar array is the roof.

That’s the other thing: Each solar installer we talked to had developed and settled on their own structural and design approach for the solar + patio.

“I’ve been toiling along with different solutions and finally found something that works. Hasn’t come from a simple stroll down the aisle at Wal-Mart,” Read says. “This solution literally took years of futzing around and figuring out because these are elegant systems and not designed to be cheap.”

“With our awnings, the wire is hidden behind wireways that are a part of the system,” McClellan says. “The extruded aluminum rails of the Solar Rainframe product can span about 20 ft with only two points of contact. This creates an uncluttered look underneath the awning because there is no need for additional beams supporting the solar array.

Premium Solar uses its standard reinforced aluminum 3 in. x 8 in. support beam, which makes it an easy fit and retains the style of their other solar patios. Wire management is also key here. Be sure to select conduit or other solutions that will keep the wiring out of view.

“We have a more commercial system in appearance that is a lower cost option to our Premium Solar Patio. Each option can be customized for the application the customer desires,” Hunter says. “Due to it being a more complex project, it does come with an added cost versus a rooftop, but we have come to find markets that sell rooftop for what the patios retail for in the majority of markets.”

Key to each of these unique designs was the Skylift, a new mounting product specifically designed for attaching to an existing roof and grounding one end of the patio while elevating the ceiling and the array. This makes it easy to retrofit a patio cover onto an existing building and attaching the solar while saving money on installing the footers and posts on that side. It also solves issues with eaves in some cases being too low to allow for the attachment of a solar patio along with the need to slope for water runoff. The Skylift allows for the needed height.

“We would have many patios that could not be installed in many cases due to a pool,” Hunter notes as an example. “Depending on where you are in the country, the requirements to offset from a pool wall would be damning to a project. The Skylift provided the solution that allowed us to back further away from the pool and get these special cases permitted.”

“Another great option for building integrated solar roofs using our Solar Rainframe system is using clear backed or bifacial solar modules that let the light shine through between the solar cells,” McClellan says. “It creates a stunning architectural detail for porches, patios, covered walkways, entryways, etc. Coupled with the Skyjack system it’s a great way to add beauty to a home or business while making clean renewable power.

Pairing the right system design with the right sales and marketing plan (and sales expectations), solar patios could develop into a nice side business.

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— Solar Builder magazine

Inside the upgrades to the most powerful microinverter on the market (now shipping)

APsystems qs1 microinverter

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, the QS1, which is now shipping in the U.S. 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.

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.”

— Solar Builder magazine