With 2020 almost a wrap, we’re fully looking at what 2021 has in store. As a leading global distributor, BayWa r.e. is positioned to spot trends in the market and to understand the implications for solar contractors. We sat down (virtually, of course) with BayWa r.e. Solar Systems product managers Kate Collardson and Aaron Bingham to get their take on trends they’re seeing in the solar product ecosystem. Collardson holds a NABCEP PV Installation Professional credential and currently serves as secretary of the board of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association (COSSA).
Let’s start with racking. What have you been seeing in the racking space that solar contractors might want to be aware of?
Kate: We’re finally seeing rail-less racking solutions picking up steam. It’s taken awhile, but they’re starting to really move now, with more manufacturers offering rail-less solutions. Manufacturers are even acquiring smaller companies that have unique solutions, like Unirac’s purchase of Ecolibrium earlier this year.
Aaron: We’re definitely seeing a considerable amount of consolidation in the racking space; this has been happening steadily over the past few years.
What does consolidation in the racking space mean for solar contractors?
Aaron: The way the businesses are consolidating varies, so it’s hard to say what the end result will be. In the long run, this may result in less choice for contractors, but it could also deliver better economies of scale.
Additionally, if the consolidation leads to an absence of choice in the market, more space for innovation could occur. Newly differentiated products to serve niche needs could possibly emerge.
Kate: We’ve also seen some smaller manufacturers innovating in interesting ways, for example, shorter lengths of rail. This may not sound like a big deal, but it actually makes things much easier for logistics and local handling. Innovation is happening around operational functionality, not just “on the roof.”
That’s great. What other “off the roof” innovations are you seeing?
Kate: Definitely in the inverter space. Inverters, in some cases, are becoming whole energy management systems.
Aaron: Exactly. We’re seeing inverters do way more than they ever have before. They’re starting to be capable of energy storage management, EV charge management and possibly even point-load control. Solar contractors will soon be able to offer their customers more control over their energy loads and sell a truly comprehensive energy management solution.
How fast is this coming?
Aaron: I think we’re seeing the same kind of acceleration on the energy storage front that we saw on the PV front five to 10 years ago. Very mature options are already being deployed widely enough to have real impact. Utilities are also showing interest in having deployed storage throughout the grid to increase grid resiliency.
We expect to see consumer demand for point-load control accelerate quickly, and we think this could be mainstream within the next five years. The demand for advanced home energy management systems may exceed demand for solar and storage.
Speaking of storage, what is happening with energy storage products?
Kate: With the major players in the battery sector stepping into the direct-to-consumer product space, they’re starting to get a better idea of what consumers want. In the first iteration of high-voltage options on the market, consumers wanted to have a storage option that could grow. They also wanted to have a whole-home backup system. They quickly discovered that the systems weren’t capable of meeting their expectations.
Aaron: There was strong consumer pushback on those limitations, and now we’re starting to see more solutions that are scalable and able to meet growing loads. The ability to slowly grow a storage system also helps homeowners with limited budgets start small but still be able to expand their systems later. Consumers wanted a storage system that would allow for a seamless transition from grid to storage power, and we’re starting to see manufacturers deliver solutions for that.
Manufacturers are also coming up with products that allow full main bypass. These systems still have limitations. We’re getting to a place, slowly, where homes could be pulling from either the grid or battery storage, and the homeowner may not even know.
Let’s move over to modules. Have you seen anything new in the modules space?
Kate: We’re seeing a lot of half-cut cells in modules as manufacturers max out the limits of the traditional 60-cell format. Half-cut cells also impact the location and design of the junction box, so installers need to plan accordingly for that.
Larger cell formats are coming too. Changes to the cell size also drive the overall form factor of the module, so some non-standard sizing is emerging. Giant commercial modules over 7 ft x 5 ft in size are already on the market, so installers just need to beware of high winds during installs! Modules are getting thinner in some cases as well. Contractors should be cognizant of this, especially if they’re installing in areas that are susceptible to high winds or high snow loads, as thinner modules could mean lower load ratings.
Aaron: There may be new options for module connectors coming soon too. In fact, there’s a new universal connector coming out as an alternative to MC4. Contractors should be careful about buying universal connectors as they may require jumpers/connectors to stay compliant for module warranties.
Bifacial technology is also becoming increasingly present in the market, but it is still hard to monetize the backside of the modules, especially for residential systems.
Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground here. Thanks for your insights on what to look out for heading toward 2021. Where can people find you if they have questions on anything here?
We can be found at BayWa r.e. Solar Systems’ website, solar-distribution.com. We publish articles from time to time on our Solar r.e.view online publication, where contactors can find the latest product and business practices information. During the pandemic we’ve also been doing some great online Solar Town Halls that offer insights from a wide range of solar pros for navigating this challenging market.
— Solar Builder magazine