In-House versus Outsourced Engineering Services: Page 3 of 7

Kyra Holt

Technical Manager
SEI Engineering and SEI Professional Services

SEI Engineering (SEIE) and SEI Professional Services (SEIPS) (seisolarpros.com) are extensions of Solar Energy International (SEI), which has a long and well-respected heritage as the leading technical training provider for the solar industry. Founded in 1991, SEI is a nonprofit educational organization headquartered in Paonia, Colorado. SEIPS and SEIE are separate legal entities, founded in 2015 and 2016, respectively, that collectively support SEI’s mission and offer formal design, consulting and field services across the globe.

SP: What types of solar design and engineering services do SEIE and SEIPS provide, and what types of clients do you serve?

KH: We have a unique business model in that our team of solar professionals is primarily comprised of the deep pool of instructors from SEI’s technical training team. We leverage the expertise of this cadre of approximately 60 instructors to meet our client’s needs for highly technical consulting services. We have six employees at the core of our business operations who oversee projects and administrative tasks and participate in day-to-day design and consulting processes on various projects. Our engineering and professional services teams provide expert consulting services during every stage of the solar project development life cycle, from concept to commissioning through O&M services. Our consulting and design services include in-house licensed electrical, civil and structural engineers. As follow-up services, we offer QA [quality assurance] inspections during construction, performance testing and commissioning. We also offer ongoing evaluation services of existing systems and troubleshooting of any kind.

We serve a wide spectrum of the solar industry, from residential installers to large developers who simply do not want to invest in an internal engineering department. The bulk of our engineering customers are developers of medium-size commercial and utility-scale PV systems. Our clients include utilities breaking into the solar marketplace, EPC firms that need to quickly outsource their engineering and developers who find it easier to use our expertise than to develop their capabilities internally. Some of our clients already have an engineering department within their ranks. They enjoy being able to use our services for QA design reviews or for full package designs rather than having to ramp staffing up and down to meet changing workloads.

SP: What types of solar companies benefit most from outsourcing design and engineering services?

KH: The types of solar companies that benefit most from our expertise are developers, financiers, EPCs and even smaller individual solar installers who need specific help making sure their systems are designed and installed correctly. The value of outsourcing is different depending on the needs of your business or the specific project on which you are working. If you are a project financier, you may need a company that can perform system design reviews and act as an independent engineer who performs a broad range of due diligence tasks to make sure your investment meets expectations. If you are a developer who will hire an EPC firm to build the project, you may realize that taking the E out of EPC and bringing the engineering more under your control makes sense from both a quality control and a financial perspective. In some cases, our clients choose to have us develop the design 90% of the way with the developer, and then they finish the design with the installing contractor to accommodate its input.

If you are a growing EPC firm, you may not have the resources or time to devote to developing an engineering staff. Or maybe you have an engineering staff but would prefer to use outside engineers to complement their capabilities rather than increase your overhead. Outsourcing engineering services is also a way to avoid the cost of carrying professional liability insurance.

SP: What should solar companies look for when selecting an engineering services provider?

KH: Make sure the company carries professional liability coverage and ask if any claims are currently outstanding. If a company carries $1 million of aggregate liability coverage and has three claims open, the value of those systems could take up most of that $1 million. In that case, you might want to step back and look elsewhere. Engineering services providers need to carry the right level of insurance based on the volume of work that they do. There is also value to using a multidisciplinary engineering firm that can coordinate all aspects of a project design—electrical, civil, structural and environmental—as this results in a more efficient system and design process.

SP: How do you and your customers approach value-engineering activities?

KH: Most of our plan reviews result in design changes to ensure safer and higher-quality installations. If we have an opportunity to perform an initial design review, we let our clients know if we see specific areas we think will benefit from a design change. At that point, the client can make a decision as to whether it wants to take the next step with our design team. So much depends on the type of client and the timing of the project. If it is an EPC who must deliver its project very quickly, chances are it isn’t going to stall the process to make major design changes. On the other hand, we may be able to identify a lot of minor changes that will help save money across the board.

SP: Do you have any advice for solar companies that want to develop an in-house engineering department?

KH: Make design quality a top priority. This will save you money in the long term. The solar industry is growing at a rapid pace, which can make it challenging to maintain quality control. It makes sense to bring engineering services in-house only if you can save money without sacrificing quality. To add an in-house engineering team, you need to have not only bandwidth to manage this new department but also an appetite for accepting additional liability.

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