Rolling Large: Roll-forming leader OMCO rolls out its new factory-direct racking

OMCO’s Field-Fast racking design

OMCO’s Field-Fast racking design incorporates value-added touches that leverage its OEM factory-direct capability.

In this uncertain #TrumpTariffs market, many investors have less appetite for newer, less proven systems, seeing that as another avenue of risk in projects where pennies and seconds count more than ever. This puts the spotlight on companies and products that can deliver the most certainty in terms of upfront costs, bankability and logistics. Given that context, the 2018-’20 market may not be interested in a new ground-mount PV concept, but the new Field-Fast system from OMCO is an exception that checks all of those boxes and more.

OMCO is one of those companies that’s been around for decades, supplying more product in the background than you realize. A roll-former that has cultivated relationships with U.S. steel providers since the 1950s, OMCO has provided nearly 8 GW of solar currently in the ground across the globe, working with industry giants like First Solar and Sunpower as a contract manufacturer. So, the history and bankability is there.

It wasn’t until last year that OMCO decided to jump from more of a supporting actor to leading man with the Field-Fast fixed-tilt system. The design is influenced by its years of experience and incorporates value-added touches that leverage its OEM factory-direct capability, such as pre-assembly and less loose hardware. In large-scale solar projects, small improvements can add up to sizable savings.

Now a year after its launch and after a few revisions (a pre-assembled tilt bracket, for instance), OMCO has launched the Field-Fast system into the market. Let’s take an in-depth look at how it works and why it might benefit your next project.

Inside Field-Fast

The key advantage in ordering direct from the factory is reducing the filler material by preassembling as much as possible. The provided Field-Fast parts are boiled down to only five bill of material items vs. multiple pages of line items. Hardware arrives to the site pre-sorted and counted specific to each block for quick staging and identification.

“On the EPC side, probably the biggest headache, as a customer is the number of moving parts,” says Eric Goodwin, director of business development from OMCO Solar, who spent part of his career leading the EPC supply chain team for First Solar. “Construction teams always lose hardware or lose track of something, and the next thing you know 60 people are waiting around for a bolt to arrive. We’ve tried to address those types of issues.”

The assembly bracket ships as a slim component that unfolds and notches into the tilt bracket. This is secured by an OMCO-designed, preassembled clip that is hammered into place in four locations. Done. That all happens at ground-level with two workers.

After placing a rubber pad over pre-installed threaded fasteners, the modules are slipped into preassembled clips and laid on top. The clips already have a bolt retained inside, and the table module rails already contain the threads for the clip, which means only one worker is needed to secure the panel, working from standing-level and never above the glass. Two clips are needed for completing the assembly of two modules.

Further smoothing out any logistics kinks: OMCO has four manufacturing sites spread across the country — Phoenix; Wickliffe, Ohio; Talladega, Ala.; and Pierceton, Ind. — compressing freight times and keeping costs low for the entire system.

OMCO’s Field-Fast racking design

Saving studies

The company recently conducted assembly time trials of the new Field-Fast racking, and, with just two installers, here were the results for structural assembly (each set consisting of 10 panels and 300 Watts between two posts):

  • Man hours per set: 0.304
  • Burdened labor rate:$40
  • Labor efficiency:85%
  • Cycle time per set: 465 seconds
  • Sets per hour: 7
  • Sets per shift: 49
  • Labor cost per watt: $0.0041

Next comes the module installation for the same two installers on the same labor rate and efficiency:

  • Man hours per set: 0.200
  • Cycle time per set: 306 seconds
  • Modules per hour: 100
  • Watts per hour: 30,000
  • Labor costs per watt: $0.0027
  • Module + BOS costs per watt: $0.0068

Stacked against installation of conventional systems, the Field-Fast racking can reduce costs per watt from 35 to 50 percent.

“With fewer parts and installation steps, we basically can cut the install time in half in some cases,” Goodwin says. “On the mechanical BoS part of an install, which is the racking itself, we’re able to show about 40 percent labor efficiency on a cost per watt, so our actual labor cost per watt for mechanical is about .4 cents per watt, and that’s about 20 percent less than we’re seeing in the market for racking. On the panel installation, those have taken labor costs down to .2 cents per watt.”

OMCO can also handle the purlins and turnkey construction services, but this isn’t just another tale of faster turn times and reduced costs. Ordering factory-direct snips out other possibilities for delays, such as last second module changes.

“We can adjust our roll-form program for any size framed module [including the new First Solar Series 6] for Field-Fast,” Goodwin says. “We know of projects where modules change last second because of prices, and we’re able to make those changes and adjust to that. That can be difficult if you’re having it fabricated elsewhere.”

OMCO’s Field-Fast racking design

First Solar ecosystem

As mentioned, OMCO is part of the First Solar ecosystem and has a slick module interface bracket (MIB) for First Solar tracker projects as well as an OEM fixed-tilt solution for Series 4 modules with nearly 5 GW of the baseline design installed. The MIB arrives to the jobsite fully assembled — the structural components, module clips, threaded hardware, rubber inserts. It slips on over the torque tube with a single carriage bolt fixing it in place.

“The unexpected increase and extension of Series 4 module life was a nice surprise. We have designed a product for almost 6 GW of First Solar projects, and the Field-Fast series is even more tailored to Series 6 when it comes out.”

Being a First Solar ecosystem partner is just another notch in its bankable, tariff-free value proposition. As First Solar scales and increases production into 2019 and 2020, OMCO is looking to capitalize, no matter what the new steel tariff brings.

This feature was in the May/June 2018 issue of Solar Builder magazine. Sign up for your free print or digital subscription here.

— Solar Builder magazine

SunPower buys SolarWorld Americas to ramp up P-Series panel production

sunpower logo

In the latest episode of As the Solar Industry Turns, SunPower is acquiring 100 percent of SolarWorld Americas. You may recall SolarWorld Americas being one of the companies that hit a rough patch and filed a 201 trade petition that launched the #TrumpTariffs now in place. SunPower plans to inject fresh capital into the SolarWorld Americas facility and implement high-efficiency P-Series solar panel manufacturing technology.

“The time is right for SunPower to invest in U.S. manufacturing, and SolarWorld Americas provides a great platform for us to implement our advanced P-Series solar panel manufacturing technology right here in our home market,” said Tom Werner, SunPower CEO and chairman of the board. “P-Series technology was invented and perfected in Silicon Valley, and will now be built in SolarWorld Americas’ factory, helping to reshape solar manufacturing in America.”

SunPower plans to ramp SolarWorld Americas operations to capitalize on strong U.S. market demand. The company will invest in factory improvements and increased working capital, while retrofitting a portion of the facility to produce P-Series solar panels, in addition to continuing to produce and ship SolarWorld Americas’ legacy products. Like SolarWorld Americas, SunPower has spent decades perfecting its technology and manufacturing processes, and this announcement marks the company’s return to U.S. manufacturing. The agreement is subject to necessary U.S. and German regulatory approvals and other closing conditions. At closing, which is expected in the next several months, SunPower will become the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer.

“This is a smart move for SunPower,” said Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of EnergySage. “As our latest report shows, SunPower has typically been the most expensive panel brand offered to consumers, while SolarWorld has been among the lowest priced. This acquisition gives SunPower the ability to better serve both quality-driven and price-conscious consumer segments, particularly those looking for American-made products. It should also help the company minimize the impact of Trump’s solar tariff.”

“SunPower is the solar industry technology leader,” said Jürgen Stein, CEO of SolarWorld Americas. “We are delighted that SunPower has agreed to inject fresh capital and their industry leading P-Series technology into SolarWorld Americas operations here in Hillsboro. Our hundreds of long-time employees are excited to be part of this next chapter in SolarWorld Americas’ long history. We are thrilled about this acquisition as it means quite simply, that our company can look forward to redoubled strength as it continues to innovate and expand into the future. This outcome is ideal for SolarWorld Americas and its employees.”

 

— Solar Builder magazine

NREL promotes new solar tool to accurately calculate PV module degradation rates

How long a product can be expected to perform at a high level is a fundamental indication of quality and durability. In the solar industry, accurately predicting the longevity of photovoltaic (PV) panels is essential to increase energy production, lower costs, and raise investor and consumer confidence. A new software package developed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and industry partners SunPower and kWh Analytics is making the measurement of PV system expected lifetime performance more reliable, consistent and accurate.

RdTools

RdTools results show time-series data along with a year-on-year degradation distribution. The same system is analyzed with the clear-sky method (a), and sensor-based method with a poorly maintained sensor (b). In this case, high reported degradation is likely caused by sensor drift, rather than a degrading PV module

RdTools combines best practices with years of NREL degradation research to deliver new methodologies that change how solar field production data is evaluated. The software package makes it possible to accurately evaluate PV systems faster, despite common challenges with performance data.

“There’s a high level of interest in this software because it provides user-friendly, accurate, and objective assessments that can help owners make sense of their data,” said Dirk Jordan, engineer and solar PV researcher at NREL. “We spent years building consensus in the industry around a common set of analytical rules. Now PV stakeholders can learn much more about the performance of their technology and improve decision-making on multiple fronts.”

How it works

PV module and system degradation have been historically difficult to assess in the PV industry. Field performance can be impacted by many confounding variables including ambient weather conditions, seasonal changes, sensor drift, and soiling, to name a few. Extracting system degradation rates previously required years of production data, high accuracy instrumentation, and the presence of staff scientists to conduct the evaluation.

RELATED: How OMRON reduces solar module PID potential through its inverter topology 

The RdTools software package solves these problems by providing a robust and validated software toolkit for calculating and analyzing PV system performance and degradation over time. The tool can deliver valuable insights for manufacturers, engineers, investors and owners who have a stake in system performance, such as identifying under-performing sub-arrays, and quantifying system performance relative to neighboring systems.

For co-developer SunPower, the results of its own data analysis were compelling. “The RdTools method was used to analyze energy generation from 264 PV systems at locations across the globe, revealing that degradation rates were slower than expected,” said Greg Kimball, a senior performance engineer at SunPower. “The result prompted improvements to and extension of our warranty coverage to customers.”

According to Adam Shinn, a data scientist for co-developer kWh Analytics, RdTools is valuable because of the information it provides to the solar investors with whom they work. “As more and more solar is deployed, there is an ever-increasing amount of PV performance data available to analyze,” Shinn said. “For solar investors who seek to understand the long-term financial risks of their energy-producing assets, analysis RdTools will help them quantify PV durability.”

RdTools was led by a NREL team of researchers: Michael Deceglie, Chris Deline, Dirk Jordan, and Ambarish Nag and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office. The software is actively being developed as a set of open-source Python scripts and usage examples on GitHub and is publicly available to interested users who can access, download, and customize the software.

— Solar Builder magazine

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

Green Street Power Partners buys up portfolio of community solar projects in New York via SunPower

SunPower Helix module mounting

Green Street Power Partners LLC (GSPP) has purchased a portfolio of community solar projects all in Con Edison’s service zone, from SunPower. A 918-kilowatt rooftop project in Maspeth, Queens, will be the first completed featuring SunPower Helix technology. The project was originated by SunPower dealer Accord Power, who is also providing development and engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) services. Construction is set to begin April 1 and expected to be complete by late spring 2018. GSPP will own the system, highlighting the company’s increased focus on project acquisition.

“This project, along with the additional projects we are currently acquiring, will have a profound impact on our company while helping us achieve our goals of being a leader in community solar, and commercial and industrial solar markets,” said Scott Kerner, Co-Founder and CEO. “We are also thrilled about the next chapter in our collaboration with SunPower and its network of dealers, and are hopeful that these projects will be the first of many.”

The SunPower Helix advanced technology which will be used for this 918-kilowatt rooftop solar system is expected to offset approximately 20,496 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the five boroughs over the lifetime of the system, the equivalent of preserving 167 acres of forest. The project will provide power to more than 150 homes in New York City.

“We are thrilled that Green Street Power Partners is taking a leadership position in helping to encourage development of reliable solar energy projects like this one featuring SunPower’s leading-edge solar technology,” said Nam Nguyen, SunPower executive vice president, commercial. “We look forward to building on this shared success in the future, bringing value to even more customers.”

— Solar Builder magazine