Strength in numbers: How solar installers can build business through third-party programs

Quick Mount PV QRail

Install of new Quick Mount PV QRail rooftop racking system.

As the story goes, solar system costs came down, which drove up demand. But this story is a bit too simplistic because the price drop and demand rise allowed the solar market to mature. In those years where module, mounting and inverter manufacturers drove down costs, quality increased, better sales and marketing concepts emerged and overall project economics and design strategy became better understood. As a result, there are more ways for savvy solar installers to build their brands based on quality, strength and value than ever before.

In this article we want to explore the value of these services — both intangible and tangible — from manufacturer-driven certification programs to third-party bidding sites to new financial vehicles that can empower regional solar installation companies to grow their own businesses and evolve the solar industry right along with them.

Strengthen your brand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This feature originally appeared in our March/April magazine. Subscribe for free here.

Strengthen your sales

Despite falling system costs overall, customer acquisition costs have actually risen over the past several years, increasing from $0.41/watt in 2013 to $0.52/watt in 2016, according to GTM Research, which is due in part to previously winning sales strategies like lead purchasing and canvassing becoming less efficient. But GTM Research expects customer acquisition costs to decline back to $0.40/watt by 2022 by means of further market maturity, proliferation of the long tail of installers and changes in lead generation strategies. Key to this are more sales converted online.

According to GTM’s U.S. Residential Solar PV Customer Acquisition 2017 report, third-party bidding platforms are expected to grow in popularity as consumers become more comfortable shopping for solar online. EnergySage, for example, is the most heavily trafficked website in the solar industry, attracting a wide variety of in-market, motivated customers who are more likely to convert because they’re already in the midst of researching and shopping for solar. EnergySage reports that the average close time through its site is only two to three months, compared to the industry average of eight to nine months.

“Based on our research, we’ve found that installers can increase sales while reducing customer acquisition costs by 50 percent or more on our platform,” says Vikram Aggarawal, CEO of EnergySage.

There is a measure of quality control on the EnergySage site as well, with listed installers needing to show at least three years of experience, licensure and insurance, NABCEP certification and a high level of customer service. But this strategy isn’t for every business because of its emphasis on immediate quotes and price, so you will have to weigh the pros and cons of casting that wider net for sales and how you will internally approach those leads.

Strengthening your online presence, whether you join a third-party network or not, is a powerful tool. A nice value-add in CertainTeed’s Master Installer program, for example, is a search engine optimization consultation for your website to help make sure as many potential online customers as possible can find and navigate your website.

Strengthen your offering

The residential solar market has shifted as homeowners now see the value of owning their PV system versus turning to third-party owned leases (down to about 37 percent of the market in 2017, from 53 percent in 2016, according to GTM Research). This is likely a trend here to stay.

Continue to page two for a rundown of new financing options and streamlined sales processes.

— Solar Builder magazine

Panasonic, Enphase to partner on high-efficiency AC module

panasonic

Panasonic Corp. of North America and Enphase Energy Inc. are partnering on the development of high efficiency AC Modules (ACMs). To support this partnership, the 320W Enphase IQ 7X Microinverter offers compatibility with Panasonic’s N Series Photovoltaic (PV) Modules HIT (N325/N330), and will be made available to distributors starting May 2018.

“Panasonic prides itself on its dedication to delivering reliable products to our customers,” said Mukesh Sethi, Group Manager, Panasonic Residential Solar Group “This partnership with Enphase Energy will enable us to combine our products and expertise to offer a new solar solution that can help our customers meet their renewable energy needs. We look forward to our future with Enphase Energy and what we are able to achieve within the residential solar industry.”

A recent Enphase market survey of installers nationwide affirmed the value-add of AC modules, with significantly lower install times, and additional savings on logistics and overhead costs, making it a preferred choice for installers. Installers and Integrators also benefit from fewer inspection steps with factory-assembled and tested ACM products.

Panasonic’s N Series HIT® Modules are among the most efficient panels on the market, with high power outputs and greater energy yields due to their industry-leading temperature coefficient of -0.258% /⁰C. Panasonic solar modules keep at least 90.76% of their initial power output even after 25 years of use.

“The N series PV Modules are manufactured for peak performance, making them an ideal partner for the Enphase IQ 7X Microinverter,” said Mr. Sethi. “With a unique heterojunction technology and advanced bifacial cells, these high efficiency panels offer homeowners state-of-the-art features and maximum solar production.”

As part of Enphase’s seventh-generation microinverter platform, the IQ 7X Micro will support 96-cell PV modules up to 400W with peak AC output power of 320W and a Maximum Power Point (MPP) tracking range of 53-64V.

When combined with the Enphase Envoy Gateway, AC Combiner 2.0 with built-in Revenue Grade Meter (RGM) and disconnects, the Panasonic-Enphase ACMs will provide highly advanced PV systems to home owners and quick installation time for integrators and installers. Compliant with Rapid Shutdown Requirements of NEC 2017, the IQ 7 Microinverter System will significantly lower overhead costs and offer homeowners a safe residential PV systems solution.

— Solar Builder magazine

What to see at Panasonic’s booth at Solar Power Northeast in Boston, Feb 5-6

Panasonic solar solutions

Are you headed to Boston for Solar Power Northeast next week? Panasonic Eco Solutions North America is and will be showcasing its high performance HIT solar panels and energy storage products at booth 208.

The HIT solar panel products that will be on display include the all-black 40 mm N320K panels that feature an industry-leading temperature coefficient of -0.258%. The Panasonic booth will also be fitted with the high-efficiency 40 mm N330 and N325 solar panels that offer 19.7% higher power output and greater energy yields, as well as a lower 0.26% annual degradation when compared to conventional panels.

The Harbor Plus smart battery, co-developed by Panasonic and Pika Energy, will also be available for viewing in the booth. The Harbor Plus is a scalable and flexible smart battery unit that offers between 10.6 kWh and 15.9 kWh of usable energy, making it simple for system owners to accommodate their changing energy needs. Alongside the Harbor Plus battery will be Panasonic’s lithium-ion rechargeable battery that can be used across a wide range of portable electronic applications.

Representing Panasonic at Solar Power Northeast will be Mukesh Sethi, Group Manager for the Solar and Energy Storage Products Division of Panasonic Eco Solutions North America, and Chris Brown, Business Development and Sales Manager. Mukesh and Chris will be available to discuss the current lineup of Panasonic products, as well as what the company has in store for 2018.

— Solar Builder magazine

Panasonic promotes three more solar installers to rank of Premium Installer

Panasonic solar solutions

Panasonic Corporation of North America is expanding its Solar Installer program with three authorized installers of HIT solar modules being promoted to the exclusive “Premium Installer” status. They are (drum roll…)

• Solar Service Inc., Niles, IL
• Arch Electric, Plymouth, WI
• HE Solar, Buda, TX

Panasonic unveiled this program last year to provide a number of value-added benefits and business opportunities to partners who are able to meet Panasonic’s high standard of excellence. Earlier this year, Panasonic announced the inaugural class of Premium Installers – nine in total – who cover both the East and West Coasts.

Panasonic’s Solar Installer program is comprised of “Authorized” and “Premium” installers. Premium installers are those companies that have completed a minimum requirement of HIT module installations and have met an annual wattage target. These installers promote Panasonic as their primary brand of solar modules, and they receive a range of benefits from Panasonic to enhance their offerings to customers.

Module Evolution: What big-time PV improvements will boost panel efficiency?

Premium installers will be part of continuous efforts with Panasonic to promote the HIT brand among the installers’ area of operation. They will receive leads generated through Panasonic’s website, where the installer will be listed as premium. Premium installers are also the beneficiary of cooperative marketing funds provided by Panasonic, at twice the level of funds provided for Authorized Installers, to help grow their business and attract even more customers.

“We’re pleased to see our Solar Installer program thriving with the promotion of three new Premium Installers, for a total of twelve, in just a few short months,” said Mukesh Sethi, Group Manager of the Solar Division of Panasonic Eco Solutions North America.

As the Solar Installer program continues to expand, Panasonic will aim to bring industry leading companies into these mutually beneficial relationships.

— Solar Builder magazine

PV Pointers: Silicon heterojunction solar cell technology moves beyond the lab

There’s been lots of buzz about silicon heterojunction [SHJ] solar cells and rightly so. SHJ is one of the more promising solar panel technologies to come along in some time due to its proven ability to improve conversion efficiency. In addition, panels employing SHJ cells have been able to improve overall temperature coefficient power output — to as low as 0.258 percent — helping to solve a problem that has caused more than a few solar panels to sputter on especially hot days.

How we got here

PanasonicThe history of SHJ goes back to 1980 in a lab at Sanyo Electric (now Panasonic). Sanyo engineered the world’s first amorphous silicon solar cells but given their low conversion efficiency — less than 10 percent — practical applications were limited. In the late 1980s, Sanyo continued to tinker, eventually developing solar cells with laminated amorphous silicon and thin-film polysilicon. Bucking the prevailing wisdom of the day, the amorphous silicon was used only as a conductive passivation material rather than as an electricity-generating layer. The result was greatly improved junction characteristics, and the SHJ solar cell was born. Sanyo researchers presented their findings at the Fifth Photovoltaic Conference in Kyoto, an international gathering of the photovoltaic research community, and excitement quickly spread. Ensuing milestones include the attainment of 20 percent efficiency in 1994 followed by the 1997 rollout of the world’s first commercially-marketed heterojunction solar cell. Since then, SHJ has seen continued improvement with the technology underpinning current records for conversion efficiency and reduced degradation rates.

Why are SHJ cells superior?

Let’s start with base materials. SHJ solar cells are made using a combination of amorphous silicon layers and monocrystalline silicon wafers, a material less prone to degradation under prolonged, intense light exposure. This unique construction lets the solar cell produce electricity at both the front and rear of the cell. Further, the use of multiple materials allows for the insertion of wider bandgaps, which lets the cell respond to multiple light wavelengths. The net result is superior conversion and the ability to maintain near-peak efficiency at higher temperatures.

Given the proven benefits of silicon heterojunction technology, why are some manufacturers sticking with older, more conventional technologies that use amorphous silicon only? While the benefits of SHJ have become widely accepted, high production costs have remained a stumbling block. But with recent advances in the metallization process that leverages SHJ’s ability to be processed at lower temperatures than amorphous silicon cells, SHJ may finally be moving into the mainstream. While SHJ panels still demand higher upfront costs than non-SHJ counterparts, higher conversion efficiencies, guaranteed performance metrics and longer warranties — up to 25 years from some manufacturers — have shortened the payback window enough to win over consumers who see the wisdom in committing to solar energy for the long haul.

Mukesh Sethi is group manager, residential solar team, at Panasonic.

— Solar Builder magazine