Category: Westridge PAC Project

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07/03/13

  07:10:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 647 words  
Categories: Solar Economics, Commercial Solar, Non-profit solar, Westridge PAC Project

Westridge Case Study: Part 3 - Advice to the Solar Reluctant

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.


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.”

Saving money mattersThe 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.

‘Surgere Tentamus’

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.

07/02/13

  07:04:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 908 words  
Categories: PWP Rebates, Commercial Solar, Non-profit solar, Westridge PAC Project

Westridge Case Study: Part 2 - Run on Sun Gets it Done!

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.


Run on Sun Gets it Done

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.

Enphase display of Westridge projectFor 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.

Westridge project complete

A Picture-Perfect Roof, Perfected

“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.”

A Truly Happy Anniversary

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.

07/01/13

  11:36:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1315 words  
Categories: PWP Rebates, Non-profit solar, Westridge PAC Project

Case Study: Westridge One Year Later

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.

Big Plan on Campus

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.

Perfect roof for solar at Westridge school's performing arts center

A Picture-Perfect Roof for Solar

“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.

Doing their Bidding

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.

12/12/12

  12:46:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1768 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, AB 811/PACE/LACEP Funding, Feed-in Tariff, Westridge PAC Project, 2012

Top 10 Posts of 2012

MistletoeYear-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)…

#10 - SolarCity Files for IPO

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:

Oddity - SolarCity's dramatic price reduction

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.

#9 - Q: What is more popular than Solar? A: Nothing!

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!

Chart of favorable-unfavorable ratings for different energy types

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.)

#8 - Non-Residential PACE Rebounds - at Least in LA County

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.

#7 - CPUC Provides Progress on Net Metering

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.

#6 - Power to the People - Support SB 843!

Community solar

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.

#5 - Westridge Project Grabs Pasadena Weekly’s Green Issue Front Page!

Jim Jenal, Run on Sun Founder, poses beside the 52.3kW solar power installation at Westridge School for GirlsWe’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.

#4 - LADWP Updates FiT Status

FiT price decline over timeLADWP 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!

#3 - Vote Yes on 39

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.

#2 - Centex Clouds Solar Tile Repairs

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.

Centex logo

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.

And Our #1 Post of the Year:
Outliers & Oddities: State of SoCal Solar 2012 - Part 3

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:

Years of delay

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!

Looking Ahead…

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!

Happy Holidays!

09/19/12

  04:03:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1882 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Westridge PAC Project, SPI 2012

SPI 2012 Recap

We spent last week at Solar Power International in Orlando thanks to our friends at Enphase Energy - here is our recap.

Rocking with Enphase

Enphase booth at SPI 2012

As we noted in our pre-show post, we were invited to attend SPI this year at the invitation of Enphase Energy, the company behind the most successful (but certainly no longer only) micro-inverters on the market.  This was our second consecutive year at SPI courtesy of Enphase and a better host could not be found.

Last year we were part of their Installer Challenge where six installers from around the country participated in a good-natured competition to demonstrate how easy it was to install the  Enphase M215 product with its plug-in cabling.  We didn’t know it then, but very soon we would be installing more than 200 M215’s on the Westridge roof, and in doing so, earn our second invite.

Westridge project on display at the Enphase booth

Westridge Project on Display at Enphase Booth

Having achieved substantial success in the residential market, Enphase is working very hard to make in-roads in the commercial sphere - and thus our install at Westridge fit nicely into that narrative.  We participated in a panel with a group of other installation companies that have also incorporated Enphase into commercial projects and we did a pair of one-on-one interviews that showcased the Westridge project and our experience using Enphase.  We also got to speak to a fair number of visitors to the Enphase booth (which was always crowded) and we even got a sneak peak at a prototype of the next model (which we can’t comment on now, except to note that some installer-requested features will be included - stay tuned!).

It was a great way to see the show and we can’t thank Kady Cooper and everyone at Enphase enough - you folks rock!

Oh, and one other point.  Pretty much every large company at the show hired local “talent” to help host their booth.  Most companies that do that, seem to think that it makes sense to have these women wear outfits that are more akin to what you would see on a dance floor than at a solar installation. As the father of a 16-year-old daughter, it was really satisfying that the two women who were brought in by Enphase to help host their booth wore outfits just like all of the other Enphase employees.  Another example of how Enphase Energy is a class act.

Stars of the Show?

Enthusiasm Gap

As great a time as we had at the Enphase booth, we would have to say that overall, the show was a bit of a letdown, as was the show in Dallas last year.  We admit to our California bias, and we mean no disrespect to solar fans in Dallas and Orlando, but the crowds just never came anywhere near what saw filling the aisles in Los Angeles two years ago - despite a significantly worse economy in 2010.  Not clear that Chicago will be able to reverse that enthusiasm gap (and also not sure whether we will be there to find out), but we expect things to bounce back when the show moves to Las Vegas in 2014.

Trending

If there was one discernible trend at the show, it was that AC-modules - whether fully integrated or by way of the abundance of micro-inverters on display - are here to stay.  We think the reasons for that success are pretty compelling (as we have noted before) but it certainly looks like the panel and inverter makers have come around to that point of view - however grudgingly that may be.

Storage - Not Yet Ready for Prime Time

A number of companies were talking about energy storage and a presentation at the KACO booth declared that local storage was the future of solar.  That may well be, but none of the products that we saw at the show, including those from KACO and Samsung, appeared to be ready for deployment anytime soon.  Still, the prospect of potentially generous incentive dollars for such storage - assuming the CPUC can ever implement the existing law - means that this will continue to be a hot topic and one which we intend to cover in greater depth in the future.

LG Bounds Up the Learning Curve

LG 300 Watt solar panel

We wrote last year about the introduction of LG Electronics into the U.S. solar market and this year they became our “go-to” panel of choice for working with the Enphase M215 micros.  Well it is apparent that LG is paying attention to their feedback as they had a couple of significant announcements.

First, their existing panel products, notably the 255 Watt panel that we will be using for the rest of the year, is getting a frame redesign that will make the overall panel 11% lighter without sacrificing strength or durability.  Also, the panel now has clips on the back side to hold the panel leads in place so you cannot have them getting crushed by the panel frame when you stack them prior to installation.  These are relatively minor changes, but they show a great attention to the type of details that make an installer’s life easier, and even safer.

The other announcement was that of their upcoming 300 Watt, 60-cell panel that is due out next summer.  We had heard rumors that LG was about to announce such a panel, and now they have - of course, next summer is a long way off.  It will be interesting to see how this new panel meshes with the new Enphase micro-inverter which will most likely also debut sometime next year.

President Clinton Rocks the House

To be sure, the biggest hit of the conference was the speech delivered by President Bill Clinton, fresh off his tour-de-force at the DNC the week earlier.

President Clinton addresses SPI 2012

President Clinton did not disappoint, taking on the new role of Cheerleader-in-Chief.  Often touted as the smartest guy in the room, the former President displayed detailed knowledge of the solar industry and he both exhorted and chided the crowd for not getting their successes before the public.  “Most people don’t know that there are 100,000 people working in the solar industry,” Clinton reminded the audience.

“You are going to win this fight,” the President insisted, “the only question is when and how."  What was needed was for solar to reach the sort of “tipping point” which would make that ultimate success inevitable.  But we certainly aren’t there yet, which is a shame given that “the United States leads the world in its potential for solar so we must also lead the world in installed capacity - but we are not."  A lot of that is a reflection of different policies between countries that have adopted solar with gusto, like Germany, and the more tepid policy response of the U.S.

But those of us in the solar industry are in the “future business” and “you have to take risks if you are going to go to tomorrow’s dance."  We should embrace those risks because we are in such a fortunate position:

The greatest human tragedy in this country today is the crushing unemployment.  Millions of Americans wake up every day with no hope that today will be any better than yesterday.  But you are so very fortunate because you get to get up every morning, look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Today I’m going to do something great!"  You just have to keep doing it until we reach that tipping point.

Thanks for the encouragement, Mr. President, we’re working on it!

Winner of the “Oh No, You Didn’t Go There” Award
Tie: SMA & Shoals Technology

SMA

SMA, one of the leading inverter manufacturers in the world, had a tortured product “near roll-out” during SPI and in the course of same made possibly the worst ever argument in support of their product from a solar company.  Here’s how it played out.  After initially dismissing the introduction of micro-inverters as a fad that would never catch on, SMA has now had to introduce their own micro-inverter product, but they remain deeply ambivalent about the whole thing.  Nowhere was this more on display than their presentation about the “virtues” of their new product during SPI.  We attended one of these schizophrenic productions and came away not only scratching our head, but seriously annoyed.

We were fundamentally puzzled by a presenter who spent the first half of his presentation questioning why on earth (or more accurately, on the roof) anyone would ever want to install a micro-inverter in the first place.  He then abruptly shifted gears to sing the praises of his product, and then introduced perhaps the most significant non-starter concept at SPI: the hybrid PV system, which to SMA means installing both micros and a string inverter on the same project.  (Do I really want both AC and DC conduit runs coming down from the roof?  Is anyone going to do this?)

Perplexed by the whole thing, I went up after the presentation to hear what else he would say.  The conversation promptly shifted to warranties, specifically, how long would the SMA micro’s be?  Well, we were told, the product is still in testing (with UL) so he couldn’t definitively say.  “At least ten years, hopefully 15,” he said.  (Now mind you that CSI rules require at least a 10 year warranty, so we weren’t really breaking any new ground here.)  “But wait,” said one of the installers standing by, “I have to compete with the 25-year warranty that Enphase is offering.  How am I supposed to compete with that if all you offer is 10 or 15 years?"  SMA’s spokesperson responded by belittling the idea of a company that has only been in business a short time offering a 25-year warranty, calling it not credible.  “Maybe,” said the installer, “but once I submit my bid, I’m not there to make that argument to the customer.  So I’m at a disadvantage if the guy bidding against me submits a bid that offers a 25-year warranty.”

Clearly frustrated by this predictable turn in the conversation, SMA’s spokesperson decided to pull out his trump card: “Look, you wanna talk 25-year warranties, you wanna know who else had a 25-year warranty?  I’ll tell you who, Solyndra!”

Oh.. No… You… Didn’t!

At that point my head completely exploded.  As an industry we simply cannot use Solyndra to make cheap points.  We are attacked time, and time, and time again about the Solyndra situation and yet, here was SMA’s spokesperson going there with great relish. Just plain stupid - and frankly, totally unnecessary.  Come on, SMA, you are better than that.

Shoals Technology Group

But while SMA’s speaker gets the award for most inappropriate comment, far and away the worst offender at SPI was a company called Shoals Technology that used the show to kick off an ad campaign for a product they called “Nice Rack” with photos of buxom women exploding out of their bikini tops.  We alluded to this in our recap of the InterSolar conference, but obviously they did not get the hint.  And then when lots of folks started to complain, they really earned the tin star with clusters for boorish behavior beyond the pale.  You can contact their CEO, Dean Solon, by way of LinkedIn, or you can go to their contact page to let them know what you think of their sexist behavior.  This is not the way to grow this industry, guys.

Google

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
In addition, Run on Sun offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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