Before you can ever get a bid for your commercial solar project, you have to contact a solar installation contractor to come out to your location and perform a site evaluation. Actually, you should contact at least three contractors so that you have a set of bids to compare (more on that process below) - but how do you find them in the first place? Well, you could choose based on who has the most ads on TV or the Internet, or you could rely on Cousin Billy’s recommendation - but somehow that just doesn’t seem sufficiently scientific for a project like this. There has to be a better way - and there is.
If you remember that you need to find someone who will work NICELY with you, success is all but assured. And no, we don’t mean nicely, we mean NICELY - as in:
N - NABCEP Certification
I - Incentive provider (CSI or local utility) connected
C - City building department experienced
E - Electrician on staff
L - Local or national?
Y - Years in business.
Focus on those attributes and you will have found a contractor who will inspire confidence and guarantee a successful project. Let’s expand on why these particular attributes are so important.
The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners - NABCEP for short - provides the most rigorous certification process of solar installation professionals in the industry. Not to be confused with their Entry Level Letter that merely demonstrates that the person has taken an introductory course in solar, the NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer™ credential is the Gold Standard for installers and consumers alike. Earning NABCEP Certification requires the successful candidate to have an educational background in electrical engineering or related technical areas (such as an IBEW union apprenticeship program), at least two solar installations as the lead installer, and the successful passing of a 4-hour written examination on all aspects of solar power system design and installation.
As NABCEP notes:
When you hire a contractor with NABCEP Certified Installers leading the crew, you can be confident that you are getting the job done by solar professionals who have the “know-how” that you need. They are part of a select group of people who have distinguished themselves by being awarded NABCEP Certified Installer credentials.
NABCEP’s website offers a database of all Certified Solar PV Installers - just enter your zip code to find the installers located near you. It is with great pride that we point out that at Run on Sun, all three of our owners have earned the designation, NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer™ - and we know of no other solar power company in Southern California that can make that claim.
A second source of solar installers is the Incentive provider such as the California Solar Initiatives’ Go Solar California website. Every installer who has done a solar power installation for a CSI utility (i.e., SCE, PG&E or SDG&E) will be included on this list. Unfortunately, there are no other criteria associated with getting listed - and there is limited verification done to guarantee that the listed installer is reliable. If your job is in California, your contractor must be on this list - but this is a double-check only - not an ideal starting point for your search.
Another source for information about solar installers is your local utility’s point person for solar rebates. This person deals with installers on a daily basis, and while s/he won’t give you a specific recommendation, they may be able to warn you off of an installer whom they have learned is less than reliable.
Similarly, the folks in your local building department deal with installers regularly as part of the permitting/inspection process. Once again, they won’t be in a position to provide referrals, but they may be able to give you a warning if there are red flags associated with a contractor that you are considering.
Solar installation companies come in all sizes - from national organizations that have crews installing systems all across the country, to local operations that only work in a limited geographic region. To be sure, there are pluses and minuses on both ends — maybe lower prices for the national chain due to economy of scale in their purchasing versus greater attention to detail from a local company that lives or dies based on how well it satisfies its local customer base. And, of course, money spent on a local company tends to stay in the local economy - another consideration in tough economic times.
The last of the NICELY elements is to look at the number of years the company has been in business. Again, this is not a perfect indicator – some recent ventures really have their act together and some long-standing enterprises have long since ceased to really care about what they are doing – but at a minimum you want some assurance that the folks you are doing business with know how to run a business. Otherwise you run the risk of having a largely useless warranty and no one to call if things go wrong.
We would recommend a minimum of three-to-five years in the business of doing solar, with preferably a longer track record of running a business. Expertise in areas beyond just installing solar is also useful such as engineering, management and law.
The preceding is an excerpt from Jim Jenal’s upcoming book, “Commercial Solar Step-by-Step,” due out in July.
Technology reporter Felicity Carus of the (Manchester, UK) Guardian newspaper has a new article up on PVTech that features an extended interview with Run on Sun Founder & CEO, Jim Jenal:
For all your CSI data crunching needs, let me introduce readers to Jim Jenal, the founder and Chief Executive of Run on Sun, a small Pasadena-based solar installer … Jenal was a litigation attorney for 13 years after graduating with a BA in mathematics and a masters in computer science. He may not practise the law any longer, but his inner data geek is alive and kicking, particularly when it comes to CSI data, which he has analysed extensively in his blog.
If anyone can point me in the direction of equivalent data analysis for the CSI or other programmes in California’s solar industry, I would love to hear from you.
Carus went on to discuss our results from the Outliers & Oddities posts (which looked at some of the less savory activities in the solar industry) and ended with this quote:
Jenal thinks those in the solar industry should be good citizens. “I actually think that we’re supposed to be different. I understand those who maximise their profits. I understand that it’s much of the way the world works. But I don’t think the solar industry, which is about sustainability, should operate that way. It offends me and my sense of justice.
We would also note that it violates not just our Founder’s sense of justice, but also the Solar Bill of Rights, promulgated by the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), which declares: “ Americans have the right, and should expect, the highest ethical treatment from the solar industry.“
We are thankful, on this Thanksgiving eve, for the overwhelming majority of honest, ethical players in the solar industry who collectively do make us “different". But we still have an obligation to not only behave ethically ourselves, but to call out those few who aren’t.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
While a meaningful national energy policy is nowhere to be found, California continues to lead the way, announcing that its three Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) have reached their intermediate target of 20% energy from renewables in 2011. According to a Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) Status Report just released by the California Public Utilities Commission, Southern California Edison (SCE), San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Pacific Gas & Electric each exceeded the 20% target for renewables in 2011. Specifically, SCE lead the way with 21.1% of its energy delivered coming from eligible renewable sources, followed by 20.8% for SDG&G and 20.1% for PG&E. Collectively, the three IOUs account for roughly 68% of the state’s electric retail sales. Unfortunately, the report does not provide a breakdown of those numbers by type of renewable energy source.
Most of the gains are the result of utility-scale renewable energy products, but customer-side renewable energy generation - such as that created through the California Solar Initiative (CSI) - has also played an important role in two ways:
Under the RPS, the IOUs must average 20% from 2011-2013, 25% from 2014-2016 and 33% by 2020.
Growth of renewables in California has been dramatic: between 2003 and 2011, 2,871 MW of renewable capacity came online, with over 300 MW coming online in the first half of 2012 alone. But future growth stands to be even more dramatic with more than 2,500 MW scheduled to come online before the end of the year! According to a report in Forbes, that is the equivalent at peak output to the electricity generated by five nuclear power plants - which is good news given the problems at San Onofre.
Back in October, we wrote about some early trends from LADWP’s restart of their Solar Incentive Program and we thought it would be worthwhile to see how things have fared in the months since. LADWP had some flaws in the dataset issued in December so we decided to wait until the next revision which came out last week. (You can access the dataset here.) As before, when reporting on project costs/Watt, we used the reported cost and the CSI AC Watts as we believe that is a more reasonable reflection of the value of the projects being proposed.
In our previous post, we predicted that the Residential rebate program would drop from Step 5 (paid at $2.20/Watt) down to Step 6 (paid at $1.62/Watt) on or about November 26, 2011. The last confirmed rebate reservation to be paid under Step 5 was #1120 and it was submitted on December 12 and confirmed on December 30. So our November 26 prediction was not too far off, and a complete application that was submitted by then should have received a Step 5 rebate.
We also previously predicted that the residential sector would run out of rebate funds around April 3 of this year. How has that prediction held up? The chart below summarizes requested rebate amounts by week starting with the program restart on September 1, 2011 up through last week. Also shown is the cumulative amount requested and a linear trendline.
As of the last day in the data, the total rebate amounts requested was $11.2 million out of the available $20 million. It is also apparent from the graph that there has been a significant decline in the requested amounts following week 15 (starting December 8, 2011). Our revised prediction is that the residential sector will run out of money around May 7, 2012.
A program of this size provides some interesting insights into which manufacturers have the “go-to products” in terms of number of projects and total Watts. Here is the data from the Residential sector:
Yingli leads the way thanks to their heavy use by SolarCity which accounted for 144 of the 188 projects using the Chinese panel. Kyocera was a strong second, again benefiting from their use by SolarCity in 137 of their 155 projects. Verengo Solar drove the demand for Suntech panels, accounting for 75 of their 99 projects. Canadian Solar is the true democratic player in this field, its 80 projects were distributed amongst 31 different installers!
Not surprisingly, different panels demand different prices, but the results are not as clear as they might be due in part to how SolarCity includes its accounting/financing costs into its reported costs. As a result, both Yingli and Kyocera are substantially higher on average in the data than one would otherwise expect. For example, Yingli comes in at $8.91/Watt on average whereas Suntech is a mere $6.17/Watt - with both of these being top-tier Chinese panels. The two manufacturers renowned for their high-efficiency, high-cost products - SunPower and Sanyo - came in at $7.60/Watt and $8.07/Watt respectively. No one in the industry believes that Yingli panels outperform those produced by SunPower and Sanyo.
Similarly, it is interesting to see what the distribution looks like in the realm of inverters.
No surprise that SMA leads the way; after all, SMA is the largest manufacturer of solar inverters in the world. Their popularity is driven not only by major players like SolarCity (65 projects with SMA) and Verengo (89), but collectively by 55 different installers. Contrast that with Fronius, which achieved its #2 ranking almost entirely thanks to SolarCity which accounted for 206 of the 231 projects (89.2%).
Coming in at a respectable third place was Enphase Energy with its 74 projects being distributed amongst 31 different installers - clearly the most broadly distributed installer base in the list. None of the Enphase installs were performed by SolarCity or Verengo. Given the sheer volume of installs done by those two companies, surely some of those sites would have benefited from micro-inverters but the leasing giants were not making that technology available to their customers.
Finally, potential clients often ask about the difference in cost between a string inverter system, such as one using SMA inverters, and a micro-inverter system, such as one using Enphase. The average installed cost for the 334 SMA projects was $7.15/W. The average installed cost for the 74 Enphase projects was $7.32/W. That is a negligible difference and given that the two largest players in the data - SolarCity and Verengo - had none of the Enphase projects, we would expect the SMA projects to have a volume pricing advantage from those two companies alone. Bottom line: in the real world, there is very little cost difference between these two technologies.
One of the more disturbing things that we uncovered in our previous analysis was the degree to which some companies were apparently overcharging their customers. In particular, we singled out A.S.E.S Electrical Group (aka American Solar Energy Solutions) for being particularly egregious in this regard. So, after an additional three months of data, how have things changed?
Once again, we restricted the data to only residential projects where the system owner is also listed as residential - a total of 846 projects. Our previous size filter was 20kW; for this expanded data set we increased the size filter to 45kW, meaning that only companies with at least 45kW of projects in the data would be included. As a result, the chart below accounts for 560 out of the 846 projects described in the data.
Sadly, our results are as disappointing as last time - check it out:
What is going on here? While the average system price declined from $8.91/Watt back in September to $8.24 over the entire dataset, the disparity between the most cost-effective performers and the least is as great as it ever was! Indeed, our repeat failure as the biggest gouger of solar consumers in Los Angeles is once again, A.S.E.S. but now their cost is more than three times the cost of the lowest price company, Ronco Solar.
Indeed, while A.S.E.S. did lower their cost somewhat, they apparently did it by replacing the Schuco brand solar panels that they were using before with third-tier Chinese panels from Sopray Energy. (In contrast, Ronco consistently uses Canadian Solar panels, a top-tier Chinese solar panel.)
Certainly caveat emptor applies when purchasing a solar power system, but at some point it seems like the utility should step in and warn its customers about predatory practices. So how about it, LADWP, isn’t it time to give your customers a heads-up about what is going on?
Put another way, if you are considering going solar and your installer proposes a system that is more than $8.24/Watt - and indeed, that is a very high number for installations today - we have one word of advice: RUN!
The latest newsletter from the California Solar Initiative (CSI) highlights some of the precedent shattering developments in solar this past year. Here’s our summary of the most notable developments this year:
We will be writing more about the details of all of this growth in the New Year. What oddities and outliers will we discover then? Stay tuned!