The State of the Solar Industry: Page 7 of 9

Blue Oak Energy (
Bill Reaugh, director of engineering

Blue Oak Energy is a Davis, California–based engineering and construction firm that has fielded more than 1 GW of solar capacity across more than 900 sites since its founding in 2003. Bill Reaugh, the company’s director of engineering, has worked in the PV industry since 2002, specializing in technology development and regulatory policy.

How does the future of the US solar industry look from Blue Oak Energy’s perspective?

The 2018–2020 business outlook is staggering. We owe that to the extension of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC). The ITC provides a stable tax incentive framework for projects, which helps ensure long-term industry stability and growth. As an engineering and construction firm that supports developers, financiers, contractors and product manufacturers, we see firsthand how the ITC extension has improved the outlook for all of our partners.

How has Blue Oak Energy adapted its business model and services over time?

One of the primary adaptations we have made is the addition of a full-service civil engineering team. Utility-scale solar projects have taken over a large percentage of our engineering capacity. Getting the civil aspects of a project right from the very beginning of a development effort is essential to delivering a successful project on schedule and within budget. We have also seen project schedules compress as the industry matures. Having a full-service civil engineering team in-house working closely with our electrical and mechanical team members creates a cohesive system design across all boundaries. As a result, we can now fully engineer, permit and begin construction on very complex utility solar projects in a matter of a few weeks.

What products or services are coming to market that are potentially game changing or particularly important incremental advances for the US solar industry?

From both a design and an O&M perspective, we like using tracker systems that operate without the need for drive shafts or external power supplies. In terms of plant design, this provides significantly more flexibility, particularly in areas challenged by terrain, wetlands or other obstacles that prevent regular power block shapes. The efficiency of O&M activities improves because the O&M team can drive module-washing and weed-control equipment straight through the row without having to turn around in the middle, which also allows for tighter spacing between rows and improves ground cover ratio. Other incremental improvements include steel pile product and wire harness advances, increased string inverter capacity and 1,500 Vdc utilization voltages.

You have some experience with tile- and roof-integrated solar products from your tenure at OCR Solar & Roofing, which PetersenDean acquired in 2009. What lessons did you learn about the residential new construction market? What do you make of Tesla’s new Solar Roof products?

Many media reports about the October 28 announcement are inaccurate. Tesla introduced Solar Roof tiles, not shingles as many outlets reported. Roof tiles, on one hand, are typically made of concrete, clay or slate. Even trained roofers have a difficult time handling roof tiles as they are heavy and brittle. Shingles, on the other, are made of asphalt and other petroleum byproducts, so they are exceptionally inexpensive to manufacture, durable and easy to install.

Elon Musk’s claim that his solar roof tiles will be cheaper to produce and install than traditional roofing materials may be accurate—with a very large emphasis on may— but much depends on the details. When I worked with a roofing contractor doing solar roofs integrated with traditional roofing tiles, we used a product manufactured by BP Solar precisely because it installed identically to roofing tiles. What many have observed, but not necessarily thought about, is that while roofing tiles are nearly uniform, roofs are not. Therefore, roof tile installation needs to be flexible to accommodate changes in roof shape and pitch. To integrate easily with roofing tiles, solar roof tile installation must also provide flexibility. While the BP Solar tiles were flexible, a competing product at the time was not, which led to some compromises that could cause long-term issues with the roof.

Elon Musk and his team have proven to be incredible innovators and have disrupted multiple industries with technologies that achieve economic scale. It is also true that venerable companies such as BP Solar, Dow Solar, SunPower, Unisolar and many others have ventured into this particular solar niche with varying degrees of success. Based on that history, it will be difficult for Tesla to achieve the level of success it has attained in other areas. We will simply have to wait to see what comes out of Buffalo.

Before joining Blue Oak Energy, you represented KACO new energy in some of the Rule 21 proceedings. What was that process like and where do things stand?

According to the California Public Utilities Commission, Rule 21 is “a tariff that describes the interconnection, operating and metering requirements for generation facilities to be connected to a utility’s distribution system, over which the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has jurisdiction.” The process of creating Rule 21 started in 2011 and is ongoing in 2017. During the development process, stakeholders decided to break the rulemaking into three phases: Phase 1 deals with autonomous functions, Phase 2 deals with communication requirements, and Phase 3 deals with advanced features. Prior to the creation and adoption of Rule 21, inverters were required to trip offline when the grid became unstable for any reason. Outside the US, countries with large penetrations of renewable generation sources—such as Germany and Denmark—decided that the flexibility inverters provided was beneficial to the grid, and those countries developed standards for when and how inverters could support the grid. In the event of an abnormal voltage condition, for example, you might want interactive inverters to ride through the event rather than disconnecting from the grid and exacerbating those conditions, which could potentially lead to a blackout.

Rule 21 is among the first efforts in the US to develop and follow similar standards on a grid-wide basis. Prior to implementation of Rule 21, it was possible to allow the additional flexibility, but only on a case-by-case basis and only through special operating agreements between the plant operators and utilities, which limits these functions to large-scale solar projects. Rule 21 now pushes those options down to systems as small as 15 kW.

As of December 2014, the investor-owned utilities in California (PG&E, SCE and SDG&E) had adopted Phase 1 of Rule 21 statewide. As of September 2016, UL developed testing standards to certify inverters as having “advanced inverter functionality.” Inverter manufacturers are now getting equipment certified to the new Advanced Inverter Standard and will have commercially available products soon. Inverter manufacturers are required to complete the certification process no later than September 2017.

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