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

Solar FlexRack

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

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

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

Raw materials bottleneck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timelines keep shrinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Solar Builder magazine

Schletter Group debuts next-gen fixed tilt ground-mount racking system, G-Max

Schletter Group is introducing G-Max — the company’s next generation fixed-tilt, solar ground-mount racking system.

Schletter

What’s cool about it?

According to Schletter, noteworthy cost benefits of the steel ground-mount product include increased adjustment capability in the field, increased spans between foundations, standardization and reduction of hardware, and lower costs across multiple installation steps.

The company says it will pre-assemble many components prior to shipment in order to allow installers to unfold and connect the structure more easily on site. Like all Schletter North American products, G-Max is manufactured in the U.S. and comes with a standard 20-year limited manufacturer’s warranty, adds Schletter.

RELATED: SPI Preview: Four fixed-tilt mounting products to see 

“This ‘smart rack’ is unlike any fixed-tilt solar mounting system on the market today,” says Eddie Bugg, executive vice president of product technologies and applications at Schletter Group. “The design leverages our unique manufacturing technology to provide optimized racking for project-specific needs. The robust structural profiles are more stable for longer spans, positioning G-Max to succeed Schletter’s existing steel FS Uno product. Look for more product innovation from Schletter in the months to come.”

G-Max is currently ready for design and pricing on projects.

— Solar Builder magazine

2016 Editor’s Choice Projects of the Year: Solving space limitations

beardWe say it every year: When it comes to solar projects, we are all winners.

We already announced the winners of our 2016 Project of the Year vote, but we at Solar Builder liked a bunch of the other submissions too. Welcome to the first in our series of Editor’s Choice winners! These are projects that
didn’t garner the most votes from readers but we felt were still pretty darn cool too.

Strictly Pediatrics Surgery Center

Strictly-Pediatrics-2

Comprised of nearly 2,500 solar panels, the 812-kW system designed and installed by Freedom Solar Power includes two solar canopy structures on the parking garages, a roof-mounted solar array on the building and an in-lobby monitoring system that shows the energy savings in real-time. The limited space on the building’s rooftop was covered with panels during phase one, but phase two is where the real innovation took place — Freedom Solar Power designed and installed a custom solar canopy to shade the top floors of the parking garages while providing a significant amount of the building’s energy needs. The solar installation is expected to offset 50 percent of Strictly Pediatrics’ energy needs and generate more than 1.2 million kWh of electricity per year. The solar project will pay for itself in less than seven years. and save Strictly Pediatrics more than $3 million over the next 25 years.

Strictly-Pediatrics-3

 

Location: Austin, Texas

Size: 812 kW

Completed: May 2016

Developer: Freedom Solar Power

Contractor: Freedom Solar Power

Modules: SunPower

Inverters: SMA

Mounting: Schletter (for rails and clamps)


Mashpee Commons

Mashpee-commons

Mashpee Commons is an open-air shopping center that is the physical and social center of the quaint Cape Cod town of Mashpee. SunBug Solar was ultimately selected to carry out the project and was careful to address several key requirements of the client. At Mashpee Commons, where the visitor experience is paramount, SunBug Solar made sure not to impinge on the enjoyment of the guests. The use of heavy equipment was limited; all panels, racking and ballast was lifted onto the roof using cranes in the early morning to avoid interfering with shopping hours. Street trenching and overhead wires were also not allowed. To further complicate the project, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires a formal waiver from the Department of Public Utilities to install more than one net meter on a single parcel of land, so the seven rooftop solar arrays had to be tied into one main Point of Interconnection — without cutting pavement. SunBug Solar decided to use horizontal underground drilling to connect the arrays to the main panel (2,000 ft of underground conduit and wiring). In order to connect inverters on seven separate roofs to a single cluster controller, SunBug Solar installed NanoBeam wireless devices on each roof to wirelessly connect to the local area network.

Mashpee-Commons-3

Location: Mashpee, Mass.

Size: 443 kW

Completed: June 2016

Developer: SunBug Solar

Contractor: SunBug Solar

Modules: SunPower

Inverters: SMA

Mounting: Ecolibrium

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar Builder Project of The Year Winner: Fort Madison Middle School

Fort Madison Middle School

Category: Roof-Mount

Fort Madison, Iowa | 300 kW

Property-Reuse-(2)

The landmark 1922 Fort Madison Middle School nearly wound up in an Iowa landfill, but thanks to the vision of developer Todd Schneider, and thanks to state-administered funding from the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), the apartment complex is a showcase of renewable energy.

Schneider had already remodeled a number of public schools in Iowa before the middle school fell into his hands. Sorely outdated for school use and empty since 2012, he transformed the three-story building into a 39-unit apartment complex, primarily featuring three-bedroom configurations.

roof mount winner“Designing green definitely helped finance the project because the CDBG is a competitive loan that is scored on a point system, so more points for our green design, including renewable energy, pushed us to the top of the pile,” Schneider says. “It was a one-time CDBG program involving new housing as part of flood relief. There were $124 million worth of applicants across the state, and only $12 million in funds to release, and we got $3 million. The total project cost was $5.5 million, with the remainder borrowed from a local bank. We’re also on track for some historical tax credits to pay down the notes.”

While the project is a for-profit venture, Schneider also retained the gymnasium and the auditorium, which may come to serve more public use. He said members of the class of 1960 have offered to contribute some funding to preserve it.

Since the block grant encouraged renewable energy use, the project was analyzed from a green viewpoint from the beginning. “We worked with an energy auditing company to get appropriate sizing of the PV system,” notes Troy Van Beek, the CEO of Ideal Energy, which planned and installed the 300-kW solar system. “We used lots of insulation.”

The apartments each have varying usage by design — some are gas, some are electric.

“We used gas on the lower level, and as the apartments rise, we used more electric,” Van Beek says. “The 100-kW carport supplies the third floor and part of the first floor. The 200 kW on the roof supplies part of the second and third floors. In the future, there will likely be an electric vehicle charging station in conjunction with the carport.”

RELATED: PV in schools: Education sector is one of solar’s best opportunities 

“Our calculations are that the solar will generate $58,000 to $70,000 worth of electricity per year, so after tax credits, we are looking at an 8.5-year payback,” Schneider says. “The rent includes utilities, but we discount their estimated bills by 20 percent.

Apart from the solar, the second and third floors use air-driven electric heat pumps, and all hot water heaters are electric heat pump driven.

The 200-kW array on the roof supplies part of the second and third floors of the building.

The 200-kW array on the roof supplies part of the second and third floors of the building.

Utility partnership helps The local utility, Alliant Energy, has net metering, so energy will be sold back in the summer and pulled more during the winter.

“It was a clear process working with the utility,” Van Beek notes.

Alliant has a progressive solar program, which includes a corporate renewable center. The utility built an energy learning lab at its Madison, Wis., general office with several types of solar structures, multiple electric vehicle charging stations and an energy battery storage system. This solar learning laboratory enables Alliant to discover the many ways solar energy and renewables can be used in a Wisconsin setting. For Alliant, one of its key projects will be a monitoring interface available onsite and online where anyone can view real-time performance data.
Ideal Energy sees potential for extrapolating lessons learned from this project to community solar projects elsewhere in the state.

“We’d love to do community solar; that’s how the utilities would like to see solar unfold,” Van Beek says. “Nothing has taken hold yet for community solar legislation, but we are doing everything we can politically to promote it; it’s going to happen, but it’s a process.”

In the meantime, Ideal Energy recently expanded its operational footprint to include Minnesota, along with existing Illinois and Iowa business.

“We have coordinated with SolarCity and groSolar and look to handle any size array,” he notes.

Charles W. Thurston is a freelance writer who covers solar energy from Northern California. Reach him at chazwt@gmail.com.

— Solar Builder magazine

2016 Solar Mounting/Racking Guide: Product Showcase

PV mounting solutions

Photo credit: EcoFasten Solar

Most of you may have learned that the earth is not flat. Which is too bad, really. If it was flat, we’d just place PV panels all over it and call it a day. Our Mounting Guide would certainly be a lot less interesting.

But no, of course it isn’t flat. It’s not even round, really. It’s hilly and bumpy and slanted and hard and soft. It’s also full of wind and falling water and ice. And sometimes, when the gods are bored, the ground literally quakes. And that’s just on one site.

Somehow, on top of all that, we are now installing GWs of renewable energy. How is it even possible? Why, mounting and racking solutions, certainly help. Below is a guide to many of today’s top mounting/racking companies, the services they offer and a standout product in their lineup. And if you missed any of our other Mounting Guide articles this year, check those out too:

 

Roof-Tech

Roof Tech’s RT-[E] Mount

RT- [E] Mount is a compact, versatile rail-less PV mounting system. Simply attach the RT-[E] Mount to the rafters or anywhere else on roof decking. Once the panels are fastened, the system array is electrically bonded. RT-[E] Mount comes complete with RT Butyl flashing, renowned for its watertight performance and durability. PE stamped certification letters available: UL 2703, ICC ESR-3575, ASTM 2140, Fully Waterproof.

Lineup Snapshot

Residential
C&I
Utility
Roof-mounts
Ground-mounts

X
X
X

Types: Rail-free

Website: www.roof-tech.us
Contact: info@roof-tech.us

RELATED: Mounting with butyl rubber: How Roof Tech gets a leak-proof seal 

 

Spice-Solar

Spice Solar’s complete system

Spice Solar has developed a complete system that reduces parts and rooftop installation time on all roof types and all wind/snow zones. No more racking, mid and end clamps, transporting 20-ft rails, sawing, splicing and grounding — not to mention all the purchasing, inventory and logistics hassles that go along with this blizzard of rooftop parts.

Residential
C&I
Utility
Roof-mounts
Ground-mounts

X
X

Types: Integrated racking

Engineering Services: Layout/design

Website: www.spicesolar.com
Contact: info@spicesolar.com

 

 

NEW-SolarRoofHook-ProductSolarRoofHook’s All Tile Adjustable Roof Hook

SolarRoofHook’s All Tile Adjustable Roof Hook is the leading mounting hardware for clay and concrete tile roofs in the industry. It is designed to work with a variety of tile sizes and types, including both flat and Spanish tile roofs. This hook has three points of adjustability and is compatible with all major racking manufacturers, accepting 5/16 in. or 3/8 in. bolts.

Residential
C&I
Utility
Roof-mounts
Ground-mounts

X
X

Types: Rack-mount, hooks

Website: www.solarroofhook.com
Contact: jwiener@quickscrews.com

 

NEW-ECOFASTENEcoFasten’s Rail-Free Rock-It System

With the top-down leveling of EcoFasten Solar’s rail-free Rock-It System, the installer can level as they go or after the install. Also, the extensive EcoFasten line of patented watertight solar roof mounts is comprised of a series of product systems characterized by roof-type application. Each system can be paired with a wide variety of brackets, allowing installers to attach EcoFasten Solar roof mounts to virtually any racking option.

Residential
C&I
Utility
Roof-mounts
Ground-mounts

X
X
X

Types: Structural, rail-free

Engineering Services: Layout/design

Website: www.ecofastensolar.com
Contact: (877) 859-3947

RELATED: Do you need a solar snow management system? 

 

CertainTeedCertainTeed’s Solstice System

CertainTeed’s Solstice System features high-efficiency, 60-cell monocrystalline or polycrystalline photovoltaic panels with power outputs from 260 W to 285 W. The rack-mounted modules are available in a variety of black and white frame and backsheet combinations. Solstice is also backed by CertainTeed’s equipment, power output and installation workmanship warranty — one of the most comprehensive in the industry.

 

Website: www.certainteed.com/roofing/solar

 

MagerackMagerack’s Solar Mounting System

The Magerack Solar Mounting System is a turn-key solar mounting solution that includes all components from the rail and clamps to roof attachments. The system is UL 2703 listed and has a Class A file rating with integrated bonding and grounding. In particular, its patented L-foot with flashing is easy to install and absolutely waterproof at a competitive price. Magerack will also have innovative rail-less mounting system available this year.

Residential
C&I
Utility
Roof-mounts
Ground-mounts

X
X

Types: Structural, hooks

Website: www.magerack.com
Contact: info@magerack.com

 

SnapNrackSnapNrack’s Series 100 Roof Mount System

The SnapNrack Series 100 Roof Mount System is engineered to optimize material use, labor resources and aesthetic appeal. The system boasts pre-assembled, stainless steel “Snap-In” hardware, watertight flash attachments and installs with a single tool. It is fully integrated with built-in wire management solutions for all roof types, one-size-fits-all features and can withstand extreme environmental conditions. It is listed to UL Standard 2703 for Grounding/Bonding, Fire Classification and Mechanical Loading.

Residential
C&I
Utility
Roof-mounts
Ground-mounts

X
X
X

Types: Rack-mount, hooks, fixed tilt

Engineering Support: Layout/design

Website: www.snapnrack.com
Contact: contact@snapnrack.com

 

Solar-SpeedrackSolar SpeedRack’s SpeedMount

Solar SpeedRack’s SpeedMount (UL 2703, 1703 and 467) is a shared rail system.  The black anodized aluminum rails are shipped pre-assembled and are adjustable to fit over 95 percent of the available modules. Its rail strength and spans are industry leading with roof penetrations further reduced by using its SpeedFoot, a non-penetrating load-bearing rail attachment making this system an ideal solution for high wind and/or snow loads. Through use of its calculator, available free of charge on its website, customers can design their project in portrait, landscape or a combination of both and produce an accurate bill of materials for the racking required.

Residential
C&I
Utility
Roof-mounts
Ground-mounts

X
X
X
X

Types: Rack-mount, fixed-tilt, carport

Engineering Support: Layout/design, geotech

Website: www.solarspeedrack.com
Contact: shane@solarspeedrack.com

 

QuickRack-systemQuick Mount PV’s Quick Rack

Quick Mount PV’s patented mounting system Quick Rack is a simple, cost-effective and elegant rail-free solar mounting system. Featuring QRack technology, the patented system is an integrated roof mount and racking system, engineered to be robust and structurally sound. The system works with standard module frames and comes with state-of-the-art design software. Quick Rack ships in small boxes, saving money on shipping and logistics. With no rails, installation is fast and simple with mounts-to-modules instead of mounts-to-rails-to-modules.

Residential
C&I
Utility
Roof-mounts
Ground-mounts

X
X

Types: Rack-mount, rail-free, hooks

Engineering Support: Layout/design, installation

Website: quickmountpv.com
Contact: sales@quickmountpv.com

Click 2 for rooftop commercial and ground-mount products

— Solar Builder magazine