A little over three years ago (my how time flies), we installed a 52kW solar project at the Westridge School for Girls, here in Pasadena. At the time, the project got a fair amount of attention (including an award from the City), was featured in a video (watch it here), and was the lead story in Enphase Energy’s Summer 2012 Newsletter.
Three years down the road, the folks at Enphase decided to circle back and check-in to see how the Westridge project had performed over the years - both in terms of saving money for the school, as well as being incorporated into the curriculum (another key goal of the project).
The article, titled — Solar on the Roof, Power in the Classroom — details how the Westridge Solar system has outperformed the modeled performance, producing 105% of the expected yield. That overproduction actually benefits the school twice: most obviously by lowering the bills that much more, but secondarily, by providing a larger than expected performance-based rebate payment.
Beyond that, however, the system has also proved to be an effective teaching tool, allowing Westridge students to analyze the copious amounts of data provided by the Enphase microinverters through the Enlighten, cloud-based data reporting service. One science class, for example, was able to discover how analyzing that data could detect the occurrence of a partial solar eclipse.
We are very proud of our partnership with Westridge and we look forward to doing another project with them in the near future.
Likewise, we are grateful for partners like Enphase Energy who are as committed to producing long term solutions as we are. That is one powerful pairing!
In Part One of this three-part Case Study we learned how Westridge School chose Run on Sun as their solar contractor. Part Two followed the actual Construction and Installation process from the client’s perspective. Now we conclude with Part 3 - Advice to the Solar Reluctant.
A true and long-tenured operations man, Williams understands not every business has the same confidence in the value of large-scale solar installations and their ability to save real dollars. Sometimes, people on the ground are convinced of the legitimacy of solar but may run up against superiors still reluctant to make a long-term investment. To those people, Williams gives this advice:
“Don’t think short term, think big picture,” he says. “Look at the numbers in a way that you’re truly aware of the value of sustainable energy and how important it is.”
The facilities director advises others in his position to help decision-makers understand having a solar installation is a way to add value to a company and separate a business from competitors in a way that is meaningful to customers. People will likely support that company by continuing to give it business, especially if the cost savings can be passed on to them.
Addressing the upfront costs is one of the biggest challenges, Williams admits, but it’s large-scale projects that offer the best and fastest ROI. When talking to a supervisor, or whoever is responsible for making the decision to invest in a system, speak to the facts. Have your data prepared and on-hand, and be prepared to show concrete evidence that solar would be a worthwhile investment, he says.
Even after a business decides to go solar, there are several more opportunities to remind higher-ups that the decision was a wise one. After installation, data collected from monitoring the system can show the direct benefits to others in the company and create a culture of awareness about the overall benefits of moving toward sustainability. When Williams receives the PWP rebate, he plans to take the paperwork straight to the school’s asset management department.
“Once you estimate the legitimacy of it, don’t let people forget about it. Remind them it’s still working,” he suggests.
When Westridge School for Girls was first founded in 1913, women were not allowed to vote. Despite that fact, founder Mary Lowther Ranney, a well-known architect and teacher way ahead of her time, envisioned a place where young women could rise to new heights. Today, a full 100 years later, Westridge’s motto, “surgere tentamus,” Latin for “We strive to rise,” says a lot about the legacy of its founder.
The decision to make sustainable improvements to the campus stems from that vision, and in that way, Williams says, the new solar installation is the perfect bridge between the school’s rich founding principles and its desire to bring state-of-the-art green technology to the campus and the classroom.
He acknowledges how fortunate Westridge was to have students and parents who supported bringing solar to campus and were willing to give funds to the school for completion of the project. Now, when students lead group tours, they point to the south-facing roof of the Fran Norris Scoble Performing Arts Center and proudly let visitors know a fully-operational mini-power plant is running, unseen, above their heads.
Williams encourages others in positions like his to research the many potential benefits of solar. Seriously consider the different providers available, and choose the one who can give you the best value for your investment, because quality means more efficiency, more power and more savings.
In his case, he acknowledges his good own good fortune in finding support for solar. “There are a lot of smart people here,” he says. “When you speak intelligently to smart people, good decisions tend to be the result.”
The preceding is an excerpt from Jim Jenal’s upcoming book, Commercial Solar: Step-by-Step, due out this summer.
In Part One of this three-part Case Study we learned how Westridge School chose Run on Sun as their solar contractor. Here in Part Two we focus on the actual process of the installation as seen from the client’s perspective.
With the paperwork filed and the rebate secured, Run on Sun had a very tight window — less than two weeks in April 2012 — in which to install and connect all 209 solar modules and get the monitoring software up and running. The goal was for the project to be completed and operational by the time Westridge students returned from Spring break, so time was of the essence.
For the rooftop display Run on Sun used a microinverter system supplied by Enphase Energy, which allows customers and solar installers to track the output of the modules, individually or collectively, from the convenience of their computers, iPads or smartphones. This software was a selling point for the school, because it would make the technology accessible to students and allow teachers to creatively incorporate aspects of the solar system’s performance into classroom instruction.
The modules were grouped into three sub-arrays that formed a larger circuit. Under each module, a microinverter was installed to convert DC energy gathered from the module into AC power, which could be combined and fed back into the school’s electrical service. The 1:1 ratio of microinverters to modules allows for a more detailed readout that lets users know the output of each module and gives an easy-to-read display should anything ever go amiss, from a connection issue to dirt on the module’s surface.
Throughout the installation Williams remained on hand to oversee the work, though there were no delays and no change orders requesting funds beyond what had been originally estimated. Within the assigned two-week period, Run on Sun had completed the project on time, and everything was in working order.
“I’ve worked with a lot of contractors, and I can honestly say, in this situation, this was one of the most seamless projects we’ve ever completed,” Williams recalls. “They were here early on the first day and, boom, they got it. It was done on schedule, at the price they said and signed off by the city. I wouldn’t hesitate to do a project like that again.”
April 2013 marked the one-year anniversary of Westridge School’s solar installation, and Williams reports the system is running smoothly. The Enphase software makes it easy for officials, teachers and students to monitor the activity of all 209 modules, but Run on Sun also keeps a close eye on the operations and reaches out if and when an anomaly is detected. In the event that an outage or a decline in energy production should occur, the company promptly notifies the school.
For example, when one of the modules stopped reporting and apparently needed to be replaced, Run on Sun immediately contacted Williams to schedule a visit. The rest of the modules were still in full working order, and upon close inspection it was revealed that a connection had come loose. Still, to ensure maximum performance, the company replaced the microinverter at no cost to the school.
Another time Williams received a notification email from Run on Sun after the campus Internet connection had been temporarily cut during some service upgrades. And when the energy dipped from its norm of exceeding system predictions to 98 percent of anticipated, a call came in with a recommendation to check the array for accumulated dirt. After a brief spray with a hose, the system was back to producing at maximum capacity.
At the one-year mark, the school became eligible to receive its first annual rebate from Pasadena Water and Power. This is the first of five annual rebates it will receive, the dollar amounts directly correlated to the system’s actual production.
When a technician came from the city to assess the energy output of the system, the school was excited to learn the results. The city’s readings gave some very welcome news, indeed — the energy generated by the installation was above and beyond the original estimate provided to PWP, and it looked like the first rebate would be larger than anticipated.
“He said, ‘You’re over your estimate,’ and that’s all we could ask for,” says a thoroughly pleased Williams. “To date, everything that was promised to us was delivered — plus.”
In terms of the amount of energy generated, the rooftop system has continued to outpace expectations. The school expected to see a return on its investment in seven years, but it’s shaping up to come in as few as six. Because of the installation, Westridge is using 30 percent fewer kilowatt hours and is seeing its bills reduced by thousands of dollars each month, in addition to the rebate. The overall savings is far greater than the cost of running the air-conditioner in the gym, the initial impetus for bringing solar to campus. To Williams, making the decision to go solar was a “no-brainer.”
“The neat thing about this is it runs itself. If somebody walks onto campus, they don’t know we have a 52 kilowatt solar system on campus,” he adds. “They don’t see it. It doesn’t impact anything. All you do is save money.”
We will conclude this three-part Case Study with Part Three - Advice for the Solar Reluctant.
The preceding is an excerpt from Jim Jenal’s upcoming book, Commercial Solar: Step-by-Step, due out this summer.
Today we begin a three-part series offering a Case Study of the Westridge project, one year later. Part One reviews the process that Westridge used to choose the solar contractor to build its solar project. Part Two details the actual construction and the experience of the School in managing the project. Part Three concludes with some advice to the Solar Reluctant on why solar really does make sense.
For the past 100 years, Pasadena’s Westridge School for Girls has prided itself on providing a top-notch education that grooms young women into the leaders of tomorrow.
As part of a legacy of bringing cutting-edge ideas and innovation to campus and making it all come alive in the classrooms, school officials have made it a goal to pursue and complete at least one project related to sustainability on campus each year.
In late 2011, looking forward to the next year, they decided to address a perennial request made by parents and students over the years: that an air-conditioning system be installed in the school gymnasium to keep crowds cool on hot days. While the school could likely raise funds from the parent community to purchase and install a system, the financial and environmental impact of running it and creating a new drain on the power supply were less than sustainable, says Brian Williams, Westridge’s Director of Facilities.
So, to offset the cost and energy consumption of the desired air-conditioning unit, officials decided to fundraise for another project at the same time, one that would mitigate the cost and consumption of the A/C.
They asked parents and students if they’d be willing to raise money to install a solar system on school grounds.
Solar energy was not exactly new to the school. In 2009, Westridge had installed a small system on its newly built LEED-Certified Platinum science and math building. There some of the panels were placed near the ground, where students could see them up close and interact with the technology.
For the new project, however, school officials were thinking much bigger. They wanted to maximize energy savings by installing a large-scale system that would provide a solid and swift return on their investment and take advantage of a local rebate being offered by Pasadena Water and Power (PWP) that was set to decrease drastically after the end of the year.
Ideally, the new installation would generate enough energy to cover the usage from the A/C in the gym and still supply additional power to other buildings on the campus, saving on the school’s overall monthly electric bill. At the outset, there were no specific parameters for the project, Williams said, just a location.
“We found our biggest roof and said, ‘Fill it up,’ he says.
The south-facing slope of the roof of the Fran Norris Scoble Performing Arts Center would be the perfect place to set up a large installation. With an area of approximately 4,000 square feet, it received direct sunlight throughout most of the day and was elevated enough to tidily keep the operation out of sight.
Williams turned to three different solar companies, seeking estimates to help define the scope of the project and determine a total cost that would guide the school’s fundraising efforts.
The first two companies Williams considered were those the school had worked with on past projects. One was a large, international solar provider that had worked on the 2009 science building installation. The other had previously worked with Westridge on nearby residential properties.
Run on Sun, the third provider approached regarding the installation, was the only one the school had not personally worked with before. The Pasadena-based company had contacted school officials earlier that year and delivered a presentation on its installation process, qualifications and services provided. That presentation was fairly comprehensive, and made enough of an impact for Westridge to include Run on Sun in the bidding process.
“We didn’t have any actual experience with them, but they had very good references that we checked as we went through the bidding process,” Williams explains.
Finding the right contractor for the job was a thorough search that employed analysis and research. But beyond that, Williams, who’s worked in the facilities department for more than two decades, relied on his own gut instinct and experience to determine which company could best get the project done in a short amount of time and leave no detail unchecked.
Since Westridge is a privately funded nonprofit, it is not under the same obligation as public entities to accept the lowest contractor bid. Cost, however, was still a primary consideration in selecting an installer.
“I have a fiduciary responsibility in my job to make sure the projects we do here are cost-effective and help maintain our campus in a positive way,” Williams says. “I can’t do anything that doesn’t make fiscal sense.”
The cost estimates provided by the three companies for an approximately 50 kW system were not that disparate from one another, coming in at about $4.25 per watt. One thing Westridge did have to be cautious about in its review of the estimates, however, was the possibility of a provider initially underbidding the project with the intention of requesting additional funds through change orders after a contract had been signed. The contractor who was truly right for the job would be one who provided an accurate estimate up front and diligently held true to that figure.
When considering the PWP rebate, Williams knew the school stood to save about half the total cost of the installation over the course of five years. Additionally, all three bidders told Westridge officials they could expect to see a full return on their investment in about seven years. Overall, the project made great financial sense.
Since the cost estimates that came in from the three bidders were relatively similar, Williams also analyzed each company’s references, experience and credentials. For example, he did consider installers certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) to have an advantage over uncertified companies. Another important factor was the presence of a licensed electrician on the staff. “It’s an electrical installation, and I wouldn’t let anybody who wasn’t a licensed electrician be on site,” he says. “I’m guessing the city wouldn’t allow it either.”
Throughout the selection process, Westridge officials knew they were working under a bit of a time crunch. If they missed the window to apply for the PWP rebate, the project would end up costing significantly more than the amount they had raised. Because of this, hiring an installer who could successfully submit all the paperwork before the fast-approaching deadline, and one they could trust to get the application process 100 percent right the first time, was of critical importance.
In this regard, Run on Sun was a standout, Williams says. They promised to take care of all the paperwork, filing within the deadline period and eliminating the extra bureaucratic steps the school would otherwise have had to take.
“They managed the whole process — I basically [just] had to sign the form,” he says.
The fact that Run on Sun had a strong working relationship with the city of Pasadena was another important consideration that worked in its favor, given Westridge’s own solid standing in the community. The attention to detail and professional accountability demonstrated by the company throughout the bidding process brought the local provider to the top of the list, making the ultimate decision to go with Run on Sun an easy one, Williams says.
“It was a combination of the cost, return on investment, their relationship with the city, the impression we had with the provider, how they presented the information and their references. We looked at all of it.”
Next up, Part Two - Run on Sun Gets it Done!
The preceding is an excerpt from Jim Jenal’s upcoming book, Commercial Solar: Step-by-Step, due out this summer.
Year-end is often a time for retrospection, and few things are more popular this time of year then Top 10 Lists (unless it is kissing under the Mistletoe - to which we say, feel free to combine both!). We decided to look back over our dozens of posts this year and highlight the 10 most popular based on our viewership data.
Each of these posts was viewed more than fifteen hundred times - which leaves us both humbled and very thankful indeed.
So here they are, our Top 10 Posts for 2012 (click on a title to read the post in full)…
One of the big stories of the year has been the on-again, off-again, on-again story of SolarCity’s proposed Initial Public Offering. While cleantech IPOs have not been a very pretty site, there was much buzz about the SolarCity IPO as being a potential bellwether for a change in “green” fortunes. SolarCity’s original confidential filing with the SEC coincided with a remarkable repricing of their systems as recorded in the CSI data:
By the time the IPO was publicly revealed in October, it was clear that one of the major risk factors facing potential investors was how the U.S. Treasury would treat the question of how SolarCity had valued its systems for purpose of claiming federal tax dollars. A question, which we would note, still remains to be fully answered but the preliminary indications are not good for SolarCity and its existing investors. For example, SolarCity revealed that for a limited number of systems, Treasury had reduced the allowable price per Watt from $6.87 to $6.00 for California systems and from $6.20 to $5.00 for Arizona - reductions of 12.6% and 19.3% respectively. When applied to the $341 million SolarCity says it has claimed so far, that could be a $43 million haircut.
As of this writing, SolarCity is now saying it will go forward with a revised offering at $8/share - down nearly 43% from the midpoint of its earlier proposed range of $13-15. Stay tuned, this story is far from over.
In an election year it was not surprising that some echoes of that contest found their way into the posts for this blog. One interesting point was the survey data about the popularity of solar among voters. Didn’t really matter what your party affiliation, solar beat out all other forms of energy - heck, solar was more popular than chocolate!
Not that you could guess that based on some of the press coverage of the industry which seemed to have only ever heard of one solar company - Solyndra!
But voters’ belief in solar included putting taxpayer money behind it. A full 64% of all voters - and an even more impressive 67% of the much courted “swing voters” - supported tax subsidies and other financial incentives for solar. (By contrast, only 8% of all voters supported continuing subsidies for the coal industry.)
One of the most written about topics on this blog has been the struggle to bring PACE financing to reality. PACE - an acronym for Property Assessed Clean Energy - is a program that allows a property owner to finance a solar project by annual property tax payments. PACE was all set to go in the residential market when Fanny and Freddy balked in the aftermath of the 2008 mortgage bubble crash.
But there is good news as the program has been revived for commercial property owners in LA County (and some surrounding counties as well). The county launched a website and interested potential clients can learn more about the program there. We are looking forward to doing our first PACE project in 2013.
Most residential and commercial solar systems make use of net metering - that is, the method by which a solar customer gets credit for excess energy produced by their system during peak output versus the amount of energy actually purchased off the grid. Those numbers are “netted out” and the customer pays if they are a net consumer and is given a payment (tiny though it may be) if they are a net producer. Good deal all around, yes?
Well, not so much, apparently, if you are a utility. Utilities in the state, particularly PG&E, have been trying to severely limit the number of solar power systems subject to net metering. But in an important victory for the solar industry, last June the California Public Utilities Commission ruled that PG&E’s proposed way of measuring that cap was incorrect and in so doing, substantially increased the number of systems that California residents and businesses will be able to install.
The utilities did get something in return, however, a study to be performed this coming year to assess the costs and benefits of “various levels of [net metering] implementation." This will be a very important study and it may well have far reaching impacts on the growth of solar in California. Needless to say, the solar industry will need to be heavily involved in monitoring this process as it is certain that the utilities and their lobbyists will be pushing hard to get a result in their favor.
One of the frustrations of running a solar company is that there are potential clients out there for whom their own solar power system simply cannot work. Their roof might be all wrong, or the shading from surrounding trees simply cannot be overcome. Or they might be renters, or a commercial business with a relatively small, weak, roof that doesn’t match their load. Whatever the case, but way more often than we like, we simply have to say no.
Community Solar - the goal of SB 843 - could go a long way toward solving that problem. Under a Community Solar program, a system developer could sell shares in the output of the system to any customer of the utility where the project is located. Those customers could purchase just the amount that they needed, unconstrained by the happenstance of roofs, or landlords, or loads. The system provides its power directly to the grid, and the utility bills the customers based on their share of the energy produced (much like the “green energy” that some utilities now allow their customers to purchase).
Up against the end of the legislative session and facing still opposition from the utilities and their allies in the legislature, SB 843 died in September.
The good news is that the bill is slated to be reintroduced next year.
We’d be lying if we didn’t admit that our favorite project this year - at least in terms of coverage on this blog - was our install at the Westridge School for Girls here in Pasadena. Seven different articles chronicled that project from our initial selection, to a series of step-by-step construction stories, to reporting on the accolades that the project garnered for both Westridge and Run on Sun.
Micro-inverter manufacturer Enphase Energy featured the project as one of their Projects of the Week, the City of Pasadena cited the project in selecting Westridge for a Green City award, and Pasadena Weekly put the project on the cover of their annual “Green Issue." Some great PR for a great project with a great client. We look forward to doing it again with the folks at Westridge real soon.
LADWP continues its slow march to rolling out a FiT and our #4 post detailed the latest status update from DWP. Alas, we still haven’t seen data from the demonstration project released and as near as we can tell, the “standard” contracts for those approved projects are still being finalized long past the October-November timeline that was announced with this update.
Will this program roll-out in January as scheduled? Seems unlikely, but stay tuned!
Voters in California put their votes where the polls said they would be - supporting Proposition 39 that would greatly increase funding for energy efficiency and green energy projects with 60% of the vote.
Amidst rumors of possible legal challenges, the fight over, and potential implementation of, Prop 39 will be one of the big solar stories in 2013.
Mega-home builder Centex of the Pulte Group has a problem with some of its highly-touted “solar homes” - the homeowners cannot use their solar power systems because of faulty roofing tiles that threaten to catch on fire. The manufacturer has gone out of business and while Centex has said that they will pay for repairs, they are asking homeowners to sign a pernicious release that could leave them exposed if there are problems with the repair down the road.
After we originally wrote about the problem, we were contacted by one of the homeowners asking for our help. We got Centex to admit that they might conceivably waive the release requirement but apparently only if the homeowner is willing/able to push back - hard. Frankly, we think that Centex should just step up and do the right thing - but if they are unwilling to do so, we sure would like to see the authorities provide whatever extra encouragement is needed.
Despite only being published a short time, this story jumped to be our second most popular post of the year and it would make our year to be able to report that this ultimately has a happy ending. We’re still waiting.
Once again, our most popular post for the year was our annual examination of the Outliers and Oddities as determined by analyzing the CSI data for the first half of the year. Since it was published on September 6th, it has racked up more than 4,000 views!
Of all that we reported on in this very lengthy (2795 words - yikes!) post, perhaps the most troubling was what we documented with this graph:
This graph shows how the extraordinary delays in installing systems by industry-giant SolarCity is retarding the progress of the industry in meeting consumer needs and in protecting the environment. Word to the wise, bigger isn’t necessarily better and “free” may not be all that it is cracked up to be!
That’s our recap on the year - our best year ever. We are really excited for 2013 as the economy continues to improve and we finally have the uncertainty of the past twelve months behind us, we are expecting great things from the year ahead. And, of course, you can continue to expect our mostly informed, somewhat irreverent take on all things solar. Thanks for your support and encouragement - especially you, Vick!