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

SunLink reports 80 percent growth in Q1 2017


SunLink Corp. had a record close of the first quarter for fiscal 2017 with year over year MW growth exceeding 80 percent. Fueled by the company’s long-time focus on designing and manufacturing ground-mount solutions and the successful addition of its TechTrack Distributed to the proven product line, SunLink has become an industry leader in terms of providing comprehensive offerings of highly customized rooftop, fixed-tilt and tracker solutions and services.

During the quarter, SunLink installed multiple, industrial-scale TechTrack Distributed projects. The PowerCare solar project services division installed 12 fixed tilt and tracker projects and provided O&M and geotechnical services. Vertex, SunLink’s data monitoring and control software, is being used to support O&M teams on installed TechTrack Distributed projects as a valuable tool to help reduce overall maintenance costs.

“We’re sitting in one of the best positions in the industry,” says SunLink CEO Michael Maulick. “With this kind of success achieved so early in the year, we’re demonstrating that our evolution from a respected solar engineering powerhouse to one of the fastest-growing leaders in end-to-end energy solutions is being embraced by our customers. Add to that our recent expanded line of credit and investments, we’re excited about our ability to continue to innovate in areas such as dynamic design, grid security and energy optimization platforms that have the potential to transform the economics of the entire energy industry.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Three Department of Defense projects in Florida go with SunLink racking

sunlink racking

SunLink Corp. was selected by Swinerton Renewable Energy to supply its GeoPro fixed tilt solution in connection with a 165 MW portfolio of solar ground mount projects located in the panhandle of Florida. Coronal Energy, powered by Panasonic, is constructing the three projects on Department of Defense property as part of the Gulf Coast Solar Center Portfolio in cooperation with the U.S. Airforce, U.S. Navy and Gulf Power.

Work on the three sites in Valparaiso, Navarre and Pensacola is underway with construction slated to be finished in the summer of 2017.

SunLink’s product, structural and electrical engineers worked with the Swinerton team to deliver a modified GeoPro design that satisfied the projects’ unique mechanical and electrical designs and use of First Solar modules.

RELATED: SunLink listed among fastest growing tech companies in Deloitte ranking 

“It takes proven, sophisticated engineering excellence and product solutions to support the largest solar projects in the world. Our partners turn to us because we deliver on both counts, and they attest that we shine when it comes to utility-scale solar system optimization and customer service,” says VP Jonathan Eastwood, who heads up SunLink’s Swinerton team. “Swinerton selected SunLink based on our demonstrated ability to accommodate the many demands associated with complex projects, coupled with our ability to help our partners overcome obstacles and deliver a superior customer experience. Our companies share a commitment to delivering successful, enduring solar projects, and together we’re able to operate more competitively in the market.”

“SunLink has been a valuable partner in developing a solution to fit the specific requirements of the Eglin, Saufley and Holley solar projects,” said George Hershman, Senior VP and General Manager of Swinerton Renewable Energy. “We look forward to continued collaboration in the coming months as we work to bring affordable clean energy to Northwest Florida.”


— Solar Builder magazine

How SunLink, CalCom Solar streamlined the install of three recent solar projects

With shared expertise in designing, permitting, building and optimizing solar energy systems for agricultural operations, SunLink Corp. and CalCom Solar have successfully completed three solar projects in Shafter and Wasco, Calif. – the first in a larger Central Valley portfolio of installations.

sunlink calcom

To streamline all project construction, SunLink standardized its mounting solution design and permit set to align with CalCom’s installation preferences. SunLink PowerCare geotechnical testing was also performed on sites in Madera and Tipton, Calif., to optimize designs and inform the installation teams in order to further accelerate these projects’ timelines. CalCom was then able to customize and complete the installation per that customer’s needs, such as uneven terrain and boundary constraints.

“When it comes to the geotechnical, engineering and installation expertise essential for agricultural solar projects, our suite of products+services+software solutions answers the needs of farmers and growers for lower project costs, reduced risk and easy long-term operation. We understand the project priorities and drivers of this market,” said SunLink CEO Michael Maulick. “Working closely with the other agricultural experts at CalCom, we are able to streamline the entire project lifecycle and deliver more successful energy assets.”

“CalCom Solar has the technology and knowledge that can help make solar work for many farmers both financially and operationally. By going solar, farming operations can significantly lower operational costs, saving them more money annually on utility bills. The system will also help hedge against raising utility rates, delivering significate utility savings over the next 25 years,” stated Dylan Dupre, CEO of CalCom Solar. “CalCom has made a name for itself as a leader in Central Valley agricultural solar with more than 100 MW deployed at some of the largest agricultural sites in the region. We seek out partners who also pride themselves with capabilities in this area, and SunLink’s demonstrated success from engineering to mounting solutions has proven a valuable asset.”

— Solar Builder magazine

2016 Editor’s Choice Projects of the Year: Community Spirit

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.

Editor’s Choice: Solving Space Limitations

 Town of Stafford


Challenges: Building this PV system on a rocky, steep terrain required special drillers just to install the piles. Some boulders pulled out were bigger than a pickup truck. Developer Standard Solar did a formal study and used innovative smart inverter capabilities to integrate to the grid according to ES’s requirements. The landfill part of the project was unique in that all electrical wiring/conduit and racking foundations had to remain above grade so as to not penetrate or disturb the cap layer. Standard had to run the inverter output feeders in conduit down a very steep (approximately 40 percent grade) section of the cap in order to reach the equipment pad. Innovation: This is one of the first virtual net metered projects approved in Connecticut, and it offsets 100 percent of the town’s load, making the whole town net zero. It supports mostly schools and other community loads.

Town-of-Stafford-landfill-solarLocation: Stafford, Conn.

Size: 3.45 MW

Developer: Standard Solar

Contractor: Electrical Contractors and Maine Drilling and Blasting

Modules: Hyundai Heavy Industries

Inverters: Chint Power Systems

Mounting: GameChange Solar and DCE Solar


Cedar Falls Utilities “Simple Solar” Initiative


Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU) launched its “Simple Solar” community initiative to meet a growing demand for clean energy, while offering flexibility around participation in the project. CFU gave its customers the opportunity to pre-subscribe for the solar energy by making an upfront payment. These payments gave customers access to a portion of the energy that the array will produce — an amount by which their energy bills will be reduced — and the more customers who participated, the lower their cost to participate. This approach proved demand and interest among customers, drove the size of array built and created a mechanism where a customer could apply their energy savings to another home if they decide to move. Interest drove the solar unit price from $399 to $270. This became the largest community solar project in the state.

Location: Cedar Falls, Iowa

Size: 1.987 MW

Developer: RER Energy

Contractor: SunLink PowerCare

Modules: Hanwha

Inverters: Yaskawa-Solectria

Mounting: SunLink


— Solar Builder magazine