Industry Interviews

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Sarah Kurtz is a principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and has served as a group manager for the PV Module Reliability Test and Evaluation Group since 2008 and the co-director for the National Center for Photovoltaics since 2015. Kurtz co-founded and is a leader of the International PV Quality Assurance Task Force, which seeks to do collaborative research as the basis for creating international standards that will be the foundation of the next stage of growth for the PV industry. She holds a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard University. Since her graduation in 1985, Kurtz has worked at NREL, which she considers a special place, with colleagues who share her dedication, commitment and vision of improving the human experience and reducing its impact on the global environment.

SP: Are comparative indoor accelerated-testing methods progressing to allow results that better represent degradation in outdoor environments over long periods of time?

SK: Yes, they are. As a community, we have found ways to identify many of the causes of degradation. For example, the fraction of modules that are reported to discolor has dropped for newer modules, presumably because the manufacturers learned that modules needed more UV exposure in the test environment to ensure an encapsulant wouldn’t discolor. Whether for this reason or another, the degradation rate of the photocurrent—often associated with discoloration— also has been dropping. Similarly, methods for detecting susceptibility to potential-induced degradation are allowing customers to avoid products that may degrade because of the voltage that the system itself generates.

SP: Have downward cost pressure and manufacturing changes such as the use of thinner cells significantly impacted long-term cSi module stability? 

SK: An NREL senior reliability engineer, Dirk Jordan, recently published a paper, “Compendium of Photovoltaic Degradation Rates,” summarizing reports in the literature. He and his team found that the failure rates for modules deployed before 2000 were about twice those for newer modules. Although the types of problems reported have changed, we do not yet see a major increase in the reported failure rates for the modules deployed after 2000.

In 2012, profit margins became painfully slim; modules manufactured after that time have been in the field for less than 5 years, so it is too soon to judge whether cost-cutting measures will significantly impact their long-term stability.

According to the International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaic (ITRPV), cell thicknesses have been steady at approximately 180 µm between 2010 and 2015. However, inspectors report cracked cells in the majority of array fields. It’s unclear whether the damage is originating during cell fabrication, module lamination, transportation or installation, and whether the cracked cells will present a significant problem. Nevertheless, because cracked cells often lead to reduced power output and can create safety risks, this is an area of concern that is attracting the attention of those who inspect fielded PV arrays.

SP: Some industry stakeholders contend that glass-on-glass module designs afford increased structural and electrical reliability over a module’s lifetime compared to modules with polymer backsheets. What’s your perspective?

SK: Glass-on-glass construction is less likely to suffer from cracked cells compared to glass-on-polymer modules, since the cell is at the neutral position when the module flexes. However, glass-on-glass construction can have problems with delamination if a gas forms in the encapsulant faster than it can diffuse out of the module. The glass-on-polymer designs are able to breath better, which some assume is a bad thing since diffusion of moisture into the module can contribute to corrosion. The corollary is that glass-on-polymer designs are better at allowing reaction products to diffuse out, preventing gas buildup and bubble formation. We need to understand this phenomenon better and learn how to test for it to avoid the problem in the field as glass-on-glass modules become more widely used.

SP: What is the status of the International PV Quality Assurance Task Force (PVQAT) efforts to develop a comparative module rating system? 

SK: PVQAT has undertaken three goals. The first is a rating system to ensure durable design of PV modules for the climate and application of interest. The second goal is a guideline for factory inspections and quality assurance during module manufacturing. The third goal is a comprehensive system for certification of PV systems, verifying appropriate design, installation and operation.

The standards committees are reviewing multiple test methods to develop the rating system. In particular, they are discussing methods to test for hotter use conditions. In addition, partnering with a standards development organization that the CSA Group formed, we at NREL are working toward an international standard for more-stringent testing that will give project stakeholders increased confidence almost everywhere in the world. We plan to publish this standard by August 2017.

The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) published the IEC 62941 standard, “Terrestrial Photovoltaic (PV) Modules: Guideline for Increased Confidence in PV Module Design Qualification and Type Approval,” in January 2016. The IEC System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Renewable Energy Applications (IECRE) is handling the implementation and is accepting applications from organizations wishing to issue these certificates. NREL hopes that customers will consider requiring IEC 62941 certification because this should increase confidence that a vendor has manufactured its modules with adequate quality assurance.

IEC created the IECRE to issue certificates for PV plants at each stage of development and each business transaction. Customers may consider asking for these certifications starting now. It includes certifications for wind, PV and marine systems. For PV plants, certifications are now available for the completion of the system (Conditional PV Project Certificate) and for an annual performance check (Annual PV Plant Performance Certificate). IECRE is developing additional certificates for the design phase and for a complete assessment of a PV plant at the time of sale.

SP: Typically, large solar project developers and EPC firms have more resources and more extensive in-house module reliability datasets for fielded PV arrays than small solar integration companies do. What advice do you have for the latter when it comes to evaluating the reliability of a given manufacturer’s PV modules?    

SK: The intent in creating IEC 62941 and other standards was to make that evaluation easy for smaller companies. Instead of sending an inspector to camp out in the factory during the manufacture of the modules, the customer can ask to see the IEC 62941 certification, which an IECRE-accredited certifying body must issue. We have started developing a similar guide for inverter quality assurance. IEC has just released edition three of IEC 61215 and edition two of IEC 61730, which add very useful requirements and which customers should request.

The draft of the CSA Group standard will be out for public review this spring and should be published by August 2017. Along with IEC 62941, this test protocol, entitled “PV Module Accelerated Testing Protocol for Quality Assurance Programs,” should give smaller companies confidence in PV modules. If customers are installing in very hot climates or on hot roofs, they may want to explore requiring higher-temperature testing that the IEC is developing.

SP: Are there any notable technical developments or advancements in research laboratory settings that you expect to see in the PV module production environment in the near future?

SK: The market is slowly adopting glass-on-glass modules, bifacial modules and modules with smaller junction boxes. These have been on the market for several years, but still have limited market share. Manufacturers are also introducing modules with higher-efficiency cells, including more passivated emitter rear cell (PERC), heterojunction with intrinsic thin layer (HIT) and interdigitated back contact (IBC) designs. Several companies such as NuvoSun and SolarCity are developing building-integrated products. Additionally, manufacturers are integrating solar cells into a range of products, including Toyota’s Prius Prime, drones, hats, backpacks and even roads. Perovskite solar cells have made impressive increases in efficiency to rival those of CdTe and CIGS, and work is under way to make these cells stable in a large area before launching production. Tandem solar cells based on silicon have now passed 30% efficiency, but manufacturers must bring the cost down before implementing production. Regarding the technologies that are higher efficiency than silicon, Alta Devices is to my knowledge the only company moving into significant production.

SP: How important is the research and development that the National Labs conduct in the transition to a 21st-century economy and electric grid? Are these efforts a big part of the US Department of Energy (DOE) annual budget?

SK: Our extensive, reliable power grid has fueled the nation’s growth over the last century; however, the grid we have today does not have the attributes necessary to meet the demands of the 21st century and beyond.  We are seeing significant increases in the percentage of variable generation from wind and PV assets. The proliferation of new smart devices and related goods and services is making consumer demands for electricity more variable as well. A modernized grid will need much more flexibility to accommodate these new technologies without loss of the reliability and affordability of electricity supply we’ve come to expect.

The National Labs, through the DOE-supported Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium, are working together with industry and academia to create the foundational science and technology innovations needed for a modernized grid.  In over 80 coordinated projects, the National Labs are bridging the early-stage research done by academia with the near-term needs of industry to design, plan and operate a future modernized grid. These efforts are a growing part of the DOE budget and have doubled in size over the last few years with bipartisan support from Congress.

SP: As a percentage of the workforce, women are often underrepresented in science and technology as well as in the building trades. To what extent has this situation changed over the course of your career? Do you have any advice for women seeking to enter or advance in the solar industry?

SK: The statistics for science and technology have changed. When I was in graduate school, I recall finding that each new class was about 10% female. I think that fraction has increased by something like a factor of three, though the statistic varies with discipline and school. Female participation in the PV industry is surprisingly low.

My advice to women is to identify what you’re good at and what you find satisfying, then focus on the work rather than on gender-influenced interactions. Working on renewable energy is satisfying to me because I feel like I can be a small part of the much larger effort to build a better world. Keep in mind that any meaningful career will have its tough moments. Hang in there until you’re successful, comfortable and oblivious to the gender balance. 

When I first started taking science classes in college, I would notice that I was the only female in the room. Recently, my daughter helped me organize a meeting, after which she noted, “Mom, did you realize that you were the only female in that meeting?” I replied, “No, I didn’t. When I was your age I noticed, but now I don’t.” Everyone should undertake a career that matches their capabilities and their interests without regard to their gender, and we’ll end up with a great world.

SP: You have had a long and distinguished career in the PV research field. What are some of the most noteworthy findings or developments during your tenure at NREL?

SK: The most important development in my 35 years of studying PV is definitely the growth of the industry. We cannot find any past projection that PV would grow so fast. Even the most optimistic of the World Energy Outlook projections have grossly underestimated the growth of PV. The costs have also dropped faster than expected, further encouraging growth. Profit margins are at an unacceptably low level for module manufacturers and some other businesses in the supply and project development chain due to a surplus market. However, companies continue to invest, presumably because people want jobs and clean energy, perpetuating the surplus market and lack of profit. Many believed that today’s low prices for silicon modules were not possible to achieve, but module efficiencies have increased while the prices have dropped.

While it’s tempting to say that PV is so successful we don’t need more research, in the lab we see that there are still many more opportunities for improvement: even higher efficiencies, reduced materials use, longer-life modules, lower module operating temperatures to increase the efficiency under operating conditions and so forth. The combination of the low profit margins and the phenomenal success of the industry is making it difficult to sustain the level of R&D that could help implement the remaining opportunities. At the same time, PV has demonstrated that it is on a path to providing low-cost electricity in a way that can bring prosperity to the whole world.

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Though life is never boring on the Solarcoaster, the start of SolarPro’s tenth calendar year seems especially eventful. It is the start of a new year, of course, as well as the start of a new administration in Washington, DC. Adding to the excitement, the 4-year presidential term just happens to coincide with the 3-year National Electrical Code development cycle. This means California has finally adopted NEC 2014, and Massachusetts and others have leapt boldly into NEC 2017.

To celebrate and reflect upon the confluence of all of these milestones and transitions, we decided to reach out to some of the solar industry’s best advocates and brightest stars to get their take on the current state of the solar industry. Against a backdrop of what at times may feel like an ever-revolving series of new challenges, many of these experts project that the US solar industry will continue to make big gains. As a Nobel Laureate in literature once said: “For the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin’.”

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA at seia.org)
Dan Whitten, vice president of communications

As the national trade association in the US, SEIA represents all organizations that promote, manufacture, install and support the development of solar energy. SEIA works with its 1,000 member companies to expand markets, remove market barriers, strengthen the industry and educate the public on the benefits of solar energy. Dan Whitten was previously an energy reporter for Bloomberg News and Platts, and is now SEIA’s vice president of communications, overseeing all of its internal and external communication efforts.

Which developments or events in 2016 had noteworthy positive impacts on the US solar industry?

This was a landmark year for the solar industry on a number of fronts. We celebrated policy successes in several states, from Massachusetts in the north to Colorado in the west and Florida in the south. In each of those states, voters or policy makers took action to expand potential markets for the solar industry. We also marked an incredible milestone—1 million solar systems installed in the US—and we’re already rapidly accelerating toward 2 million. In 2016, prices continued to decline, making solar a cost-effective option for a growing number of Americans. We also saw solar jobs grow to an impressive 209,000 strong.

What event stands out as having had a negative impact on the industry?

The Nevada Public Utilities Commission’s decision in early 2016, which changed the state’s net-metering rules and rates, was a tough pill to swallow. We saw thousands of people lose their jobs and rooftop solar applications plummet due to a dismal policy decision. In September, the commission reversed its initial stance on grandfathering and adopted regulations that protect the investments of NV Energy customers who installed a solar system or submitted an interconnection request prior to December 31, 2015

What are SEIA’s priorities as we move into the new year?

It’s vital that we continue our education efforts so those in office fully understand the benefits—both economic and environmental—that solar energy provides our nation. You will see us continue to push for pro-solar policies in a number of states. We expect to work in close collaboration with state affiliates and other interested groups toward priorities that make a difference to all of our members.

In Washington, DC, there will be a large number of new policy makers in the executive and legislative branches. It’s going to be increasingly important that we expand our education efforts and demonstrate that communities all over America are seeing increased jobs and more economic activity, thanks to the burgeoning solar industry.

We also will continue to advance and expand our efforts in codes and standards, PV recycling, consumer protection and solar energy finance. We are aiming these particular efforts at establishing a strong base on which to grow the solar industry.

What is SEIA’s current membership profile? Has it changed notably in recent years?

As the industry has matured, our membership has grown increasingly diverse. Our member companies consist of installers, project developers, manufacturers, contractors, financiers and nonprofits. Going forward, lines are going to start to blur, especially as community solar and commercial projects expand.

How does SEIA balance initiatives to support what may be competing interests among its various member groups?

SEIA represents all sectors of the solar industry, whether they be utility scale or distributed generation, and those lines are starting to blur. It’s true that there is intense competition in our industry among companies.

However, we are stronger together than apart, and we will continue to fight vigorously for policies that advance the entire solar industry, to the benefit of all of our members.

What recent state-level solar policy efforts have been particularly effective or notable?

California’s January 2016 decision extending net-energy metering (NEM) through at least 2019 was a big step for us, and we were proud of the role we played in providing expert witness testimony and advocacy. In New York, we have worked with a coalition to maintain net metering for rooftop customers until 2020; establish fair, value-based compensation for larger solar projects; and establish a community solar market in the state.

The defeat of the deceptive utility-backed Amendment 1 in Florida was also extremely notable. It let our detractors across the country know that while we might not have their bottomless bank accounts, public support is on our side. The resounding rejection of Amendment 1 should send a message across all states that you cannot curtail solar choice.

Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA at sepapower.org)
Julia Hamm, president and CEO

Created in 1992, SEPA is an educational nonprofit founded to help utilities deploy and integrate solar, storage, demand response and other distributed energy resources. Its current 1,000 members include utilities, independent system operators, large energy users, corporations and nonprofits. As the president and CEO of SEPA since 2004, Julia Hamm has 15 years’ experience advising and collaborating with utilities, manufacturers and government agencies on renewable energy and energy efficiency strategies and programs.

What recent developments have had positive or negative impacts on the US solar industry?

Certainly, a core issue that has dominated the news and minds of many in our industry has been the ongoing state-level discussions about rate reform and net metering. On the negative side, some of these discussions continue to be framed as a basic conflict between the solar industry and utilities, and some utilities continue to be viewed as anti-solar, even as they interconnect thousands of new solar rooftops and add new utility-scale or community-shared solar projects to the grid. On the plus side, we are also seeing more negotiated settlements in these cases—for example, in Colorado, Minnesota and Montana—as a result of active efforts to engage all industry stakeholders in the process. And in some instances—most notably in Hawaii—we are seeing that, given specific market economics, a change from retail rate net metering does not automatically mean that the solar market nosedives. The fact is, solar has become a mainstream source of power generation that when smartly deployed will increasingly offer benefits to customers, utilities and the grid; prices will continue to drop; and rate reform will be part of that evolution.

As we enter 2017, what initiatives is SEPA prioritizing?

In the past year, SEPA has rebranded from the Solar Electric Power Association to the Smart Electric Power Alliance. This reflects our expanded mission to echo the evolution of the solar industry itself, from its initial focus on solar deployment and market growth, to a wider view encompassing a range of distributed energy technologies, such as storage, demand response and electric vehicles. We have also stepped up our research with our Beyond the Meter series, which focuses on the grid integration of distributed technologies. In the coming months, we will release reports on microgrids, distributed resource planning and electric vehicle charging. Our 51st State Initiative has produced strategies and a recognized, effective process for market transformation. In the coming year, we hope to see one or more states adopt this model as the foundation for their own market evolution.

How has SEPA’s mission evolved over time?

Our most recent rebranding is not our first. We were originally called the Utility Photovoltaic Group, or UPVG. Our new name, Smart Electric Power Alliance, allows us to build on a brand with wide recognition in the industry and continue to grow. We are proud of our history and remain dedicated to helping utilities make smart solar decisions. We want to become a platform for all industry stakeholders, a place where they can share diverse views and ideas, and find the collaborative new solutions that are needed to reframe the narrative of our industry. The expanded scope of our mission directly addresses the challenges of solar integration on the grid and the role of distributed technologies in ensuring that solar continues to thrive.

The growth of community solar is in part a result of the industry’s customer-centric focus, and SEPA continues to play an active role in helping utilities design these shared solar programs. However, the process of change is uneven and uncomfortable; both utility and solar industry business models will likely continue to evolve. The research, collaborative processes and market transformation models SEPA has developed and supports are all aimed at ensuring that even as these important and necessary changes unfold, our energy markets remain vital and provide real benefit— economic, environmental and social—for all.

Many of your members are utilities. How would you compare utility perspectives on energy storage versus solar assets?

In the bigger picture, utilities are increasingly seeing solar, storage and other distributed technologies as potential grid assets. We are seeing many utilities launching solar-plus-storage pilots to test out how to optimize these technologies to provide both customer and grid benefits. At the other end of the spectrum, rooftop solar has been a challenge for some utilities primarily because they cannot see or control behind-the-meter assets and the impacts these technologies may have on local distribution systems. Cross-industry collaboration and partnerships are beginning to offer potential solutions to this challenge. For example, SEPA recently partnered with Nexant on a report laying out a practical model for calculating the locational value of solar and other distributed technologies, which is a critical need for integrating distributed energy resources in utilities’ distribution resource planning processes.

As the industry scales, how would SEPA like to see rate design and market opportunities for DERs evolve? What changes might best align our policies to ensure maximum stakeholder benefit?

As an educational nonprofit, SEPA does not promote or endorse any one approach or strategy for rate design, but we have laid out basic doctrines, structures and concepts for market transformation that actively involves all stakeholders. As detailed in our recent report, Blueprints for Electricity Market Reform, the four basic doctrines are: promote efficiencies; clearly define roles; identify principles of rate making; and foster customer choice. The four concepts that grow out of those doctrines are flexibility, incrementality, affordability and transparency, or FIAT. FIAT can be an extremely effective tool in helping ensure that stakeholders are focusing on real, actionable and meaningful transitions for the industry.

Amicus Solar Cooperative (amicussolar.com)
Stephen Irvin, president

Amicus Solar Cooperative, founded in 2011, is a jointly owned and democratically managed purchasing cooperative of PV installers, integrators, EPC firms and developers who benefit by collaborating to lower customer acquisition costs, streamline project financing and drastically improve operational efficiencies. Stephen Irvin moved from Namasté Solar, where he was CFO, to serve as president of Amicus. Irvin has a background in environmental economics.

Which developments or events in 2016 stand out as having had notably positive or negative impacts on the US solar industry?

Two major positive influences were the extension of the federal investment tax credit and the significant decrease in module pricing due to the overcapacity of module supply in the second half of 2016. These two developments sustained the growth and prosperity of our member companies. We also saw some impactful negative influences, such as some state-level policy changes regarding net-metering laws and community solar rules that represented challenges to the solar industry. Further, the SunEdison bankruptcy had a ripple effect resulting in lower investor confidence, which directly impacted sources of project financing. We saw more-stringent underwriting criteria that put downward pressure on EPC pricing and necessitated additional guarantees, such as system uptime and warranty wraps.

As we move into 2017, what initiatives is Amicus prioritizing?

Amicus plans to invest heavily in creating more opportunities to share best practices and learn from each other. We’ll also add new members to expand our coverage across the US.

For the last 2 years, several member companies have been working to charter a proposed Clean Energy Credit Union, which will be an independent entity, to provide financing for products and services such as residential solar, electric vehicles and energy-efficiency home improvements. Credit unions are financial cooperatives, backed by the federal government, and are thus very safe places to deposit funds. As we continue to see more customers seeking loans over leases, this is a timely entrant to the marketplace. Clean Energy Credit Union (cleanenergycreditunion.org) expects to receive its federal charter and begin operations in early 2017.

Lastly, Amicus received an award through the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) SunShot Initiative to form the Amicus O&M Cooperative, which will support the O&M needs of commercial and utility PV systems across the US by identifying co-op members who are located in close proximity to system sites for rapid response, with all members operating under standardized services, pricing and contract terms. We will require all member technicians to complete our certified training programs to ensure a standard quality of work.

Amicus Solar is a member-owned cooperative. Why did Amicus opt for this business structure? Are any of Amicus Solar’s individual members employee owned?

Three of our member companies, including one of the founding companies, are employee-owned cooperatives. What makes cooperatives unique is that the members are also the owners. Rather than rewarding outside investors with its profits, a cooperative returns its surplus earnings in proportion to how much members use the cooperative. This democratic approach to business results in a powerful economic force that benefits cooperative members and the communities they serve.

Amicus Solar and some of its members are Certified B Corporations. What is a B Corporation and what value does the certification offer?

B Corporations are certified by the nonprofit organization B Lab (bcorporation.net) that their business practices genuinely create social good for employees, customers, the community and the environment. The certification represents a rigorous, third-party assessment, and it is a powerful sales tool for customers who believe in voting with their dollars. It helps companies attract and retain talent. The B Corp brand is well known within the socially responsible investor community and helps attract funding. Additionally, it brings these companies into another community of forward-thinking business leaders, where people work together to bring about meaningful change. We are proud to say that 14 of our members (34%) are currently B Corps, including Amicus itself, with several other members now interested in the certification.

Many Amicus members point to the information exchange that the group facilitates as one of its most valuable aspects. How is this exchange facilitated, and why do members feel comfortable sharing business information that may be considered proprietary?

We provide several ways to facilitate information sharing among members: we hold two in-person retreats per year, we manage an online communication tool where people pose questions and the brain trust answers, and we have monthly conference calls on dedicated topics such as marketing practices and general business questions. We carefully manage individual member information to preserve confidentiality, and when we share it, we always present it in aggregate form.

The Solar Foundation (thesolarfoundation.org)
Andrea Luecke, president and executive director

The Solar Foundation is a nonprofit organization with a reputation for impartiality and high-quality, objective research on solar markets, economic impacts and the workforce. The foundation works with decision makers in the government, business and nonprofit arenas. Founded in 1977, it relaunched in its current form in 2010. As president and executive director since the relaunch, Andrea Luecke is the lead on The Solar Foundation’s annual National Solar Jobs Census report series and frequently presents on practical solar best practices.

What recent developments is The Solar Foundation most excited about?

Just in the last year, we’ve seen solar take off at an unprecedented pace. The sharp drop in the cost of solar modules and related components, combined with the growth of both corporate renewables procurement and wholesale distributed generation, has provided new life to the small utility-scale and large commercial and industrial sectors. On the residential side, we’re seeing more and more homeowners looking to finance their solar installations with loans and other products that allow them to keep more of the financial benefits of the system.

All of these developments represent the evolution of an increasingly healthy and mature solar market. Of course, a big wild card will be the impact of the 2016 election on US energy and climate policy. The bottom line, though, is that solar provides a clean and abundant energy source that is increasingly popular and very cost competitive. I’m very optimistic that these trends will continue into 2017 and beyond.

What are your priorities as we enter the new year?

Early in the year, we’ll be releasing the annual National Solar Jobs Census. We first released our National Solar Jobs Census in 2010, so this is our seventh annual jobs census report. We will also be ramping up several programs funded by the US DOE SunShot Initiative, including two major initiatives to strengthen the solar workforce. One is the Solar Training Network, which will build connections between solar job seekers, employers and training providers. Another is Solar Ready Vets, which helps transitioning military personnel gain access to solar training and employment opportunities.

Another one of our priorities will be to help the solar industry reduce soft costs, which now represent up to two-thirds of the cost of an installed residential system. We lead a program called SolSmart, which provides no-cost technical assistance and national recognition to help cities and counties cut red tape and demonstrate that they are open for solar business. That’s a way to create jobs and economic development at the local level, and at the same time provide more residents and businesses with the opportunity to go solar.

We will also be moving forward with the CivicPACE program, which supports expanded solar energy deployment by bringing property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing to tax-exempt organizations, including affordable housing, schools, nonprofits and faith-based institutions.

Are there results from the 2015 Solar Jobs Census that might surprise US solar industry professionals?

Solar employment in the United States reached 209,000 workers as of 2015, having grown at least 20% for each of the last 3 years. This job growth is happening nationwide. In 2015, states that saw their solar workforce grow by 30% or more included not only California and Massachusetts, but also Florida, Maryland, Tennessee, Oregon, Nevada, Michigan and Utah.

Are there specific areas within the industry that offer more job opportunities than others?

Project installation is the industry’s largest employment sector, with 119,931 solar workers as of 2015. However, other jobs are available in sales, marketing, project management, engineering and much more. Solar industry jobs come with relatively few barriers to entry and many opportunities for advancement. In some cases, individuals can start out in an entry-level installation position and then, with a lot of hard work and the right attitude, double their salary when they are promoted a year later. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s Solar Career Map (irecsolarcareermap.org), which outlines career opportunities based on job category and education level, is a useful resource for job seekers.

What is The Solar Foundation’s Solar Training Network?

In our Solar Jobs Census, we found that one in five solar employers reported it was “very difficult” to find qualified employees. The Solar Training Network, which we launched in 2016, aims to bridge the gap between supply and demand in the solar workforce. It will strengthen connections between job seekers, training providers, workforce development boards and solar employers. It will also facilitate new research to better understand the solar workforce and the benefits of solar training for employers.

North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP at nabcep.org)
Rebekah Hren, NABCEP Board of Directors

Since its founding in 2012, NABCEP has developed and administered the most widely known and respected personnel certifications for the solar and small wind industries. Rebekah Hren started her solar career as a “wrench,” an electrician installing solar. She is a licensed electrical contractor, as well as an instructor and curriculum developer for Solar Energy International (SEI) and a technical consultant for SEI Professional Services. In December 2015, NABCEP appointed Hren to its board of directors.

From your perspective, what were the most notable developments in 2016?

As reported by The Solar Foundation in its 2015 National Solar Jobs Census, the solar industry is already three times larger than the coal mining industry. A development related to solar jobs growth is an increase in training programs targeted specifically to veterans transitioning to careers in the solar industry. For example, the DOE launched the Solar Ready Vets program as a pilot program in 2014, and The Solar Foundation took over the administration of this program in 2016, under the Solar Training and Education for Professionals (STEP) funding program. As a separate initiative, Solar Energy International (SEI) and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), both nonprofit training organizations, received US Department of Veterans Affairs approval for training courses in 2016. Both organizations now offer solar training to transitioning vets through the use of GI Bill education benefits and are actively recruiting vets for solar training.

What initiative is NABCEP prioritizing as we move into 2017?

NABCEP is developing PV Specialty credentials—sometimes called micro-credentials—in design, installation, and commissioning and maintenance. NABCEP has also developed a PV System Inspector credential intended for individuals performing system inspections for AHJs, utilities, incentive programs, investors or others responsible for photovoltaic quality assurance and code compliance.

In May 2016, the US DOE SunShot Initiative awarded NABCEP a $1.1 million cooperative agreement. As one of the DOE STEP awardees, NABCEP has been updating and expanding upon its personnel certification programs to address the changing needs of solar professionals and their employers and stakeholders.

As the industry scales, is the role of certification and training more or less important?

The days of the solar generalist are drawing to a close, and the days of the solar specialist are here. Solar specialists have particular skill sets: financial analysis, sales, legal, PV system design and engineering, construction and project management, performance modeling and analysis, or O&M. However, every solar specialist needs a base upon which to stand, and that base is solid training in PV fundamentals. Certification allows employers to hire educated generalists and confidently invest in more-specialized training and advanced certifications. This is why NABCEP is rolling out specialty credentials, including one for the quickly growing field of solar O&M.

Do you have any advice on how students can qualify training providers, whether to meet NABCEP continuing education requirements or to improve job prospects?

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) sets the bar for accreditation for solar training providers. Always look for IREC-accredited training providers and certified instructors when choosing solar training. Each year, NABCEP holds an industry-leading continuing education conference targeted towards certified PV Installation Professionals. The next conference is scheduled for March 21–23 in Dallas, Texas, and will consist of an excellent mix of industry expert panels, equipment-manufacturer technical trainings and day-long in-depth seminars.

Solar Energy International (SEI at solarenergy.org)
Kathryn Swartz, executive director

SEI was founded in 1991 as a nonprofit educational organization to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy. SEI offers hands-on workshops and online courses in solar PV, microhydro and solar hot water. One of the more than 50,000 alumni of SEI, Kathryn Swartz has been its executive director since 2012. She has a background in environmental education.

What recent developments stand out as especially good news for the US solar industry?

From a policy perspective, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruling in support of rural electric co-ops was one of the most important events. FERC affirmed the right of Delta-Montrose Electric Association—which happens to be SEI’s electric co-op—to buy electricity outside the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. FERC’s ruling in support of cooperatives’ ability to buy electricity from qualified facilities significantly increases the prospects for distributed energy in rural America, which has over 900 electric co-ops. In Delta County, Colorado, where SEI is based, this ruling creates the opportunity for large-scale local renewable energy systems, including PV, microhydro, biogas and coal-mine methane.

Additionally, Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk has brought much attention to the potential of energy storage and roofing tiles, which other companies have tried to do for years. The general public, although sometimes misinformed from a technical perspective, is actively discussing renewable energy and storage, and it’s incredibly exciting. Regardless of what happens with Tesla, Musk’s announcements have spurred innovation and growth within the industry.

Lastly, the National Fire Protection Association put PV modules on the cover of NEC 2017, which is a testament to how far we have come as an industry. Regardless of what one thinks about the major rapid-shutdown overhaul, the industry is working more closely than ever with stakeholder groups, such as firefighters, and that benefits all of us.

Moving into 2017, what initiatives is SEI prioritizing?

This year, SEI is prioritizing the expansion of our international outreach efforts, including expanding our scholarship funds so that no person is denied the opportunity for quality technical PV training. In 2016, SEI gave over 80 scholarships to people from around the world, including members of the Masai tribe in Kenya; refugees from Syria and Sudan; students from India, Iraq, Nigeria, Ecuador, Belize and Colombia; and US veterans who no longer had access to GI Bill funding for training. We are also in the process of developing international hands-on training centers, which we will model off SEI’s flagship campus in Paonia, Colorado. People from around the world take our online courses. However, there’s no substitute for in-person, hands-on training. By developing international satellite training locations, we can bring our hands-on quality training to even more people.

SEI has more than 50,000 alumni of its training programs. How has the profile of SEI’s training participants changed?

To date, we have provided training to people from all 50 states and 190 different countries through our online campus and in-person trainings. When we founded SEI more than 25 years ago, we mostly trained homeowners who were seeking energy independence through off-grid living. As the industry has changed, so too have our participants. They come to SEI for solar training for a multitude of reasons. Some are driven by a desire for energy independence—that hasn’t changed—or are seeking financial opportunities and career development. Others are concerned about geopolitical and global conflict pressures or fascinated with the technologies driving the clean energy sector. We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of veterans we are serving. Though we’ve always been an international training nonprofit, we’ve seen a major increase in the number of students from both the developing world and emerging markets.

Has the focus of SEI’s training programs evolved in recent years?

Though grid-connected applications obviously make up the bulk of the US solar market, SEI has always maintained a comprehensive energy storage program. We now have over 175 hours of energy storage curriculum that we continue to change as new technologies emerge. We’ve also spent a lot of time on our O&M trainings, and we will be launching an online O&M course in the spring of 2017. Geographically we’ve expanded with the addition of our Programa Hispano training for Latin America and our new Middle East Program. We have a team of ten people working on not only updating our online and in-person trainings, but also developing new courses.

What training opportunities does SEI offer for solar professionals?

SEI offers a variety of high-level trainings for professionals already working in the solar industry, from hands-on O&M, to advanced one-day conference trainings, to on-demand online continuing education courses. All of SEI’s training provides NABCEP education hours for certification or continuing education credits for recertification. We also offer the SEI Solar Professionals Certificate Program (SPCP), which creates a pathway to graduation requiring more than 200 hours of training and multiple tracks of emphasis. Many of our SPCP graduates go on to get NABCEP certification.

SEI launched SEI Professional Services and SEI Engineering in 2015 and 2016, respectively. What technical services is SEI offering and what businesses or groups could leverage and benefit from these services?

SEI launched these two for-profit entities because of the many requests from our alumni, who wanted additional support as they began businesses or took on more complicated projects. Not only are we supporting our alumni and their business growth, but we are also providing professional growth opportunities for SEI staff and instructors who work on a wide variety of projects, and that feeds back into keeping our curriculum cutting-edge. In addition, the profits support SEI’s nonprofit mission and fund our scholarship program.

SEI Professional Services offers third-party commissioning, performance verification, design, consulting and feasibility services. SEI Engineering provides electrical and civil permitting and construction documents for projects ranging from residential to microgrids to utility scale. We’ve worked with companies from around the world, from start-ups to established multinational corporations, to provide them with the tools they need to implement successful projects, and we’ve only just begun.

Blue Oak Energy (blueoakenergy.com)
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.

California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA at calseia.org)
Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director

CALSEIA is a California nonprofit organization created to promote the growth of the solar industry and expand the use of all solar technologies in the state through policy development, advocacy, education, networking and business services. Since 2013, Bernadette Del Chiaro has served as the executive director, coming to CALSEIA with more than a decade of policy and advocacy experience on renewable energy issues in California.

What was the good news out of California in 2016?

The biggest policy event of 2016 was the strong NEM 2.0 decision issued by the CPUC. Despite fierce opposition from California’s large and powerful utilities, and in the face of a three-to-two vote of the Governor Brown–appointed board, the CPUC adopted a strong successor program that will allow customer-sited solar to continue to grow over the next several years.

Did the California solar industry lose any fights this year?

The state suffered market losses in utility territories governed by local municipal utilities and irrigation districts. Alameda, Imperial, Modesto and Palo Alto are just some of the local utilities that have turned their back on rooftop solar, essentially killing the solar market going forward by effectively eliminating net metering.

What are CALSEIA’s top priorities this year?

Our number one priority in 2017 is our Storage and Smart Grid Project, which aims to usher in Grid 2.0, enabling high levels of distributed solar and ensuring that the customer-sited solar market continues to grow. Specifically, we will work to improve interconnection processes, create new tariffs for grid support services, launch a market transformation initiative for storage, and ensure that the next generation of NEM tariffs clears the way for continued growth of distributed solar.

How will these initiatives benefit your members, customers or the industry as a whole?

Making storage paired with rooftop solar a reality for everyday consumers is the single most important thing we can do to promote the future growth of the solar industry. This vision will come about through a combination of storage-friendly rate structures that give market value to smart inverters and storage systems, such as rebates to drive up demand and drive down prices, as well as consumer and contractor training and information to build the knowledge base to take this next big step into a clean energy future.

What is CALSEIA’s current membership profile and has it changed notably in recent years?

CALSEIA is in a major growth phase. Over the last 3 years, we’ve quadrupled our membership, and we show no signs of slowing down. We’ll start 2017 with over 430 members, and we aim to exceed 500 by the middle of the coming year. Our membership is broad, with contractors and developers making up about half of our companies. The other half is a mix of manufacturers, financiers, software developers and other support service providers. Given this growth, we are able to represent the industry in every major decision-making forum from the CPUC to the state legislature to OSHA. We are also able to help our members with more day-to-day business, such as local permitting and HOA battles that can add up and become quite the thorn in the industry’s side.

What is the status of California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program?

Extending the Self-Generation Incentive Program was an important accomplishment of the 2016 legislative session, as it effectively kept the lights on for distributed storage projects. However, the program is not big enough, and the new funds are likely to be subscribed by mid-2017, leaving a gap in funding for an industry that is trying to get off the ground. Rate structures that truly value storage, along with other grid-support services such as smart inverters, are still a ways away. Without a stand-alone incentive program to give the industry and consumers alike consistent support to drive up demand and drive down prices, California’s emerging storage market will remain expensive, serving only a niche market. This is exactly what happened to the solar PV market in the early 2000s, before adoption of the California Solar Initiative in 2006. Creating a market-transformational initiative for California’s storage industry in the next 3 years is critical.

California has always been a leader in solar policy and market development. As individual states work to develop or expand their solar industries, do you have suggestions for areas of focus?

The most important thing this industry can do is build up our outside game. Having and mobilizing strong public and coalition support, to match strong advocacy and regulatory work, is critical. Money still talks, and this industry, despite our recent growth, cannot match the resources of our opponents. Our number one resource, besides the sun itself, is people power. It is what delivered a strong NEM 2.0 decision in California, and it is what will always be the foundation of successful policy outcomes. Just look at Florida and Amendment 1. The utilities understood the power of public support for solar and tried to harness it for their own deceitful self-interests. It looked like we were going to lose until the utilities were caught in their lie and the public was made aware with the help of the media. This recent story demonstrates the importance of the outside game.

Vote Solar (votesolar.org)
Adam Browning, executive director

Since 2002, the nonprofit organization Vote Solar has worked to remove regulatory barriers and implement key policies needed to bring solar to scale. It works at the state level across the country, with staff in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington, DC. Adam Browning co-founded Vote Solar in 2002 and serves as its executive director. He previously worked for the EPA.

Were there any big wins for team solar in 2016?

There are now more than a million solar installations in the US. The fact that we will double the number of installations over the next 2 years is a bellwether of where we are going. Reaching 1 million solar installations this year was largely thanks to market-building policies at state levels in addition to declining costs and solar’s broad, bipartisan support.

We made major strides in market-building policies this year, helping drive solar progress in more than a dozen state legislatures and regulatory forums nationwide. In California, we defended and won fair net metering credit for solar customers, and we carried the torch forward for net metering across the country, including notable wins in Arizona, Colorado and Massachusetts.

2016 saw more support for expanding access to solar in low-income communities than ever before, with dedicated programs and policies taking shape in California, Colorado, Maryland, New York and elsewhere. We partnered with GRID Alternatives and the Center for Social Inclusion to launch the Low-Income Solar Policies Guide and our own low-income solar access program aimed at growing this critical market segment for the industry.

Community-shared solar made headway all year, with dedicated programs from coast to coast and nearly 100 MW in installed capacity. We worked toward building community solar policies in half a dozen states this year, including Colorado, Georgia and Maryland.

Finally, we’re neck-deep in utility reform, both in New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision proceeding and in California in multiple regulatory proceedings to craft modern grid policies. Transitioning away from the fossil-based infrastructure we rely on today will require intentional planning and investment, and it’s a tremendous opportunity to optimize solar, storage and other distributed energy resources integration onto the grid.

What about the challenges facing the US solar industry?

There were more utility-led attacks on solar in 2016 than ever before. In Nevada, NV Energy took aim and fired on solar last year by implementing punitive fees and curtailing net metering, which eliminated thousands of local jobs overnight and undermined customers’ rights to energy choices and clean generation. Our coalition successfully reinstated net metering for 30,000 existing customers, but we’re still working through the legislative, regulatory and legal avenues to bring solar back to future customers and rebuild Nevada’s once thriving clean energy industry.

Another emerging trend this year was the rise in the number of utilities that sought to penalize ratepayers—and especially solar customers—with demand charges and other unjust rate hikes. We’ve defeated demand charge proposals in Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico and elsewhere, and we will continue to fight unfair rate increases in 2017.

Utilities across the country also launched attacks on the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), a 1978 federal law that requires utilities to purchase renewables when they’re available at cost-competitive rates. PURPA is more relevant than ever for community and utility-scale development in both mature markets such as North Carolina and emerging markets in the Northwest. We petitioned the Montana Public Service Commission and FERC to protect PURPA in Montana and to seek to prevent future utility attempts to undermine this important market-building policy.

As we move into 2017, what initiatives will Vote Solar be prioritizing?

In 2017, we’ll tackle net metering and fair rate design, low-income solar access policies, community-shared solar programs, solar market drivers and building a modern grid. We’ll also ramp up our geographical reach in 2017, expanding into the Midwest in addition to our ongoing campaigns in the Northeast, Southeast, Intermountain West and Coastal West. We also plan to double down in the Southeast with a dedicated rates expert to support our legislative advocate.

Are there specific states or utilities that you think have implemented model or equitable rate designs for distributed solar?

Regulators and lawmakers in both California and New York have launched initiatives to establish equitable rate design for distributed energy resources, including solar. Importantly, both states have taken steps to ensure broad stakeholder participation and availability of the full suite of facts and data. In a recent report, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners validated this approach to rate design, acknowledging the value of distributing energy on the grid.

Vote Solar is a vocal advocate in favor of net metering. As distributed generation scales, are there structural limitations to net metering? Are there other rate design structures that might better serve stakeholders in high-penetration scenarios?

Net metering remains the gold standard policy as a fair and simple way to credit solar customers for the clean, homegrown power that they send back to the grid. The fact is, study after study in nearly a dozen states has found that net metering provides a net benefit to the grid and customers.

While net metering is a simple and straightforward compensation mechanism, like most residential rates, it doesn’t account for the time value of electricity on the grid. Thus, regulators and stakeholders are investigating how the industry can move beyond net metering to a rate design that better ties the value of excess generation to the value of electricity to the utility at any given time. The goal is to structure a far more sophisticated—and complicated—rate design. California, New York and a handful of other states have undertaken the ambitious task of utility business model reform.

Solar consistently performs well in public opinion polls, with roughly 90% of respondents indicating that they are in favor of expanding solar generation capacity. What can we do as an industry to leverage this broad support?

Get engaged in policy, especially in states where your company operates. Democracy is a contact sport, and representatives need to hear from local businesses. Businesses and individuals should proactively develop relationships with their state and federal representatives. Companies should also join national and state industry associations that are dedicated to protecting and opening solar markets.

On an individual level, becoming a free member of Vote Solar is the lowest barrier to entry to engaging in solar advocacy. We simply let you know when you can participate in campaigns or policy actions—such as signing a letter, sending your legislator an email or joining a rally—in your state. We especially rely on solar workers to speak out about threats to solar markets and opportunities to make them even stronger.

We’re up against industries and business models with powerful lobbies—not to mention deep pockets—that a 21st-century clean energy economy threatens. Now more than ever, the solar industry needs all hands on deck to build and protect markets and defend against charges, fees and other attacks that undermine the competitiveness of solar. Unlike sunshine, solar policies don’t fall from the sky.

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In 2014, Fronius USA began rolling out its SnapINverter generation of single and 3-phase string inverters for PV projects in North America. In 2015, Fronius shared the headlines with Tesla as one of two inverter manufacturers developing high–dc-voltage multiport inverters for integration with Tesla’s Powerwall Home Battery. Tristan Kreager serves as director of solar energy at Fronius USA, where he is in charge of all sales, strategy and marketing efforts. Previously, Kreager was the manager of hybrid energy solutions for SMA America. He has been active in the renewables industry since 1994, specializing in remote off-grid and grid-interactive backup systems, including industrial-scale microgrid applications.

SP: What was your introduction to solar energy?

TK: In 1993 I was up in Montana, living and going to school. A few friends and I purchased some land off the grid about eight miles from the closest paved road. We needed power to charge batteries and get the lights turned on. Purely out of necessity, we located some PV modules and old locomotive starting batteries. We used solar energy to power my house and the two additional homes we built on the property. That early experience off-grid led to my initial understanding of the technology and got me interested in the industry. For several years, I supported friends who were looking to move off the grid and helped them understand what they needed to get their homesteads set up.

SP: When did you begin working in the industry and what positions have you held?

TK: In 2007, I decided to actively pursue grid-tied solar as a career. Through the support of Solar Energy International and its training initiatives, I got my technical background up to speed. I started attending every trade show in the industry and networking as much as possible to get a good understanding of the markets, the trends and the players.

In 2008, I cofounded Stellar Roofing and Solar, a grid-tied solar and roofing company in the Front Range of Colorado that evolved into Stellar Energy Contractors.  Our focus was primarily residential. We did both grid-tied and remote off-grid installations, as well as energy efficiency projects that leveraged Colorado rebates for window upgrades and other energy efficiency measures. I transitioned from Stellar in 2010 to AEE Solar, which David Katz founded. My role was as the territory sales manager for the central US, and included design and support of both grid-tied and off-grid residential and commercial systems.

Eventually I decided to shift into the manufacturing side of the industry, specifically power electronics. I moved over to SMA America and served as its off-grid sales manager for the US. Our group worked on residential as well as commercial and industrial applications. It was a very unique and interesting experience. We were getting a lot of practical insights into the battery-backup market as it was starting to trend higher. That department within SMA evolved into the hybrid energy division, which focused on off-grid and battery-backup applications, but also PV diesel offset, a new market segment. We assessed global opportunities, and one of the most intriguing was the mining industry. So we started targeting the mining industry and designing systems where PV was essentially a negative load on diesel-dominant hybrid or off-grid systems. These projects often didn’t involve batteries. That market has been slowly evolving, and we’re seeing much more demand as businesses like Caterpillar and Cummins move into these markets.

In April of 2015, I moved over to Fronius as a national sales manager for all products, and in October I was given the opportunity to take on the entire solar division from a sales, marketing and service perspective. That’s my current role for the US market.

SP: The buzz surrounding grid-tied energy storage has continued to increase in the last year. What’s the status of Fronius’ Primo Hybrid system?

TK: We are in the midst of the R&D and initial launch of our Primo Hybrid product, which Fronius is developing to provide backup capabilities and ancillary services for the US grid-tied market. Fronius International has already successfully launched residential energy storage products in Europe and Australia, and we’re seeing significant traction in those markets. Our key partners include Tesla as well as our own Fronius Energy Package. The latter is a comprehensive Fronius-branded solution that includes lithium-ion storage technologies. The US version of the Primo Hybrid will incorporate both dc and ac coupling, and allow for multiple dc inputs as well as an input for the seamless retrofitting of existing PV systems.

The business case for energy storage in the US on the residential side is slowly growing. As we head into 2017 and beyond, we’re expecting that the deployment of these systems is going to increase dramatically. Right now we’re seeing business cases in markets such as Hawaii and also some incentive-driven markets such as California. We anticipate, moving forward, that a significant portion of the grid-tied market will involve an energy storage element.

SP: What development efforts are under way in Fronius’ partnership with JLM Energy?

TK: JLM offers the Energizer 200 platform. It has come up with a creative solution to integrate its energy storage products with our existing Primo and Symo string inverter platforms. Our R&D team has worked closely with JLM on communications efforts that leverage our open Modbus interface, with the goal of ensuring that there’s seamless integration between components and that the solution is a robust one. JLM’s target markets for the Energizer 200 include self-supply, time of use and load shifting.

SP: What will string inverter systems look like if module-level shutdown is required in the 2017 Code cycle?

TK: Good question. Our understanding is that the market is shifting toward module-level shutdown, and we are preparing for that. Fronius will continue building a strong string-inverter product portfolio. Our feeling is that module-level optimization and shutdown functionality options will be integrated into the modules themselves. Ultimately, that’s where we see things heading. Currently it’s tough for the customers to assess the added cost if module-level power electronics don’t add benefits to the system itself beyond rapid shutdown. From our perspective, we want to satisfy Code requirements at the lowest cost possible.

SP: Is Fronius actively involved in standardization efforts that will streamline interoperability between components as requirements for functionality such as rapid shutdown evolve?

TK: Standardization is key for the industry in general. Fronius has been very progressive from both a technology and a standardization standpoint. For instance, we are the initial inverter partner within the SunSpec Alliance, a trade alliance of over 70 solar and storage industry participants. We’ve remained very dedicated to such standardization efforts and believe they are crucial to driving down costs and accelerating industry growth. In fact, we have a specialist whose time is spent exclusively on IEEE, UL and NEC requirements and who sits on various standardization committees. We’re dedicated to ensuring standardization across the industry.

SP: We’re seeing the ongoing trend of integrators deploying 3-phase string inverters in larger systems. Do you see that trend continuing?

TK: We’ve been shipping the Symo inverter in the US for more than a year now, and we’re seeing it widely accepted throughout the entire commercial and industrial market. Historically, Fronius has been known more as a residential inverter player. Since the release of Symo, we’re catching a lot of positive traction within the commercial and industrial space. We are seeing system sizes in which that product is being spec’d growing every month. In the past, central inverters were spec’d into almost any megawatt-plus project. Now we’re seeing that trend starting to increase to 10 or 20 megawatt-plus projects for central inverters. The string inverter market is really consuming the lion’s share of anything less than that.

SP: Fronius USA is headquartered in Portage, Indiana, where you do some manufacturing, right?

TK: Correct. Fronius USA’s 400,000-square-foot facility opened 4 years ago. We’re really dedicated to supporting and promoting US manufacturing and jobs, to which our Portage facility lends itself. The manufacturing line for our US residential Primo inverter products has been up and running for the last 2 years. We have plans to expand additional product lines based on demand, and we’ll look into potential line expansions in the next year.

SP: Last fall you conducted interviews at the inaugural Solar Pioneer Party in Humboldt County, California. What was that experience like, interviewing many of the visionaries and entrepreneurs who founded the US PV industry in the 1970s and ’80s?

TK: Being able not only to meet but also to interview many of our industry’s founding pioneers was truly one of the highlights of my entire solar career. Those conversations helped me understand those pioneers’ experiences firsthand, their outlook on life and their perspectives on evolving PV markets over the years. One of the biggest takeaways was hearing about the battles that were waged throughout the course of the past 10, 20, 30 years, whether it be grid acceptance or net metering, and learning that many of the battles from years past are still being fought today. Those conversations definitely shed some light on lessons learned and what we, the industry’s next generation, need to be doing collectively through legislation and cooperative industry politics. We need to keep the pressure on to keep the progress of the US PV industry moving forward.

It was really unbelievable to hear what it took from a design and integration standpoint to develop the early off-grid systems and the technology choices that were available—and how those technologies have evolved into the systems and equipment we use today, including next-generation energy storage.

SP: It’s super interesting to watch things come full circle in terms of energy storage, but in a fresh technological way and for new markets and applications.

TK: We’re seeing great market potential right now in relation to energy storage. You can note a lot of similarities when you compare the early adoption of PV and net metering within the existing grid infrastructure to today’s expanding energy storage markets. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from that early adoption that can be applied to the adaptation of energy storage technologies to meet the opportunities today’s solar markets and future markets will present.

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A group of dedicated volunteers from the renewable energy industry founded the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) as a nonprofit organization in 2002. NABCEP administers the most well-recognized and respected personnel certifications for renewable energy professionals in North America. The organization launched the first Solar PV Installer certification exam (now called PV Installation Professional) in 2003, the first Solar Heating Installer certification in 2006 and the first PV Technical Sales Professional certification in 2011. NABCEP began its Company Accreditation Program in 2012. In the 13 years since NABCEP recognized the first Certified Solar PV Installers, over 3,850 individuals have achieved NABCEP certification and over 28,500 have taken an entry-level exam.

Richard Lawrence is NABCEP’s executive director. He holds an MS in environmental education from Lesley University, where he focused on renewable energy education, training and workforce development. Lawrence joined NABCEP in 2011 as the director of operations and became the executive director in 2013. Previously, he worked for 10 years as a renewable energy educator and advocate with several nonprofit organizations and community colleges throughout the Northeastern US.

SP: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) accredits NABCEP’s PV Installation Professional and Solar Heating Installer Certifications. Can you explain what that means and elaborate on what is required to achieve and maintain ANSI accreditation for a personnel certification program?

RL: Being ANSI accredited means that we follow international standards and best practices in the development, maintenance and administration of our certification programs. Since 2007, ANSI accreditation has ensured that the NABCEP PV Installation Professional certification is in compliance with the ISO/IEC 17024 standard. Independent ANSI assessors regularly review and audit all our policies and procedures regarding certification to ensure that we continue to operate in accordance with this rigorous international standard. The standard has strong emphasis on impartiality, fairness, security, confidentiality, reliability and validity. Anyone can issue a piece of paper saying that someone is certified; operating a certification program in accordance with ISO/IEC 17024 means that the issuer took all the right steps to obtain industry input and validation of the job task analysis [the information essential for understanding what tasks are required on the job and what knowledge, skills and abilities are necessary to carry out those tasks], certification eligibility criteria, examination method and recertification requirements. Ultimately, it means that the certifications we issue are rigorous and well respected by the industry, consumers and other stakeholders.

SP: What is the role of continuing education within a personnel certification program, and what are NABCEP’s specific continuing education requirements?

RL: Solar professionals should view NABCEP certification as a dynamic and ongoing process. One of the requirements of ANSI accreditation is that the certifying body ensures on a regular basis that those with its certification remain competent at performing the job. Those who achieve our certifications must actively perform the job for which we have certified them, and they must regularly update and refresh their knowledge about the profession through continuing education activities. NABCEP accomplishes this with a recertification procedure every 3 years.

Each of our certifications has slightly different requirements for recertification, but all certificants must complete at least 18 hours of relevant training and demonstrate a decision-making role on a minimum number of completed jobs every 3 years. This essentially amounts to a minimum of 1 day of training per year. While dozens of registered training providers offer continuing education opportunities throughout the year, NABCEP designed its annual Continuing Education Conference to provide all 18 hours over a single 3-day period. We move the conference between locations in the east, west and central parts of the country so that at least once every 3 years we hold the event in regions where we have a lot of certified professionals.

SP: What does NABCEP look for when approving a continuing education provider?

RL: We intend our continuing education to keep our certified professionals up to date on the latest codes and standards, technology and industry best practices. Companies or training institutions offering courses for experienced workers related to one of our certification job task analyses can register them for NABCEP CE credits by completing a simple application. Most NABCEP CE providers are product manufacturers offering technical training sessions on their equipment. Taking these types of courses helps ensure that solar professionals have training that is directly related to the actual equipment they are specifying, installing and maintaining for customers.

SP: NABCEP is holding its fifth annual Continuing Education Conference in San Diego April 4–6, 2016. Do you have to be NABCEP Certified to attend this event?

RL: While the primary purpose of the conference is to provide current NABCEP-certified professionals with an opportunity to get all of the training they need to recertify, the annual NABCEP Continuing Education Conference is also a great event for skilled PV professionals who are not yet certified. All the sessions are geared for people who have significant PV experience, so we do have some requirements for who can attend. The majority of attendees are NABCEP certified, and this creates a unique and much anticipated event for those working every day designing, selling, installing and maintaining PV systems. Attendees enjoy networking with others like them who eat, sleep and breathe PV, and they appreciate the attention the organizers, exhibitors and speakers give to ensure that the activities and content are as relevant as possible to them.

SP: What are some of the new training sessions this year’s event will offer?

RL: The first 2 days of the conference are split between exhibitor technical training sessions in the morning and in-depth special topic panel sessions in the afternoon. The third day has a few all-day options available for really diving into a topic. As always, a select group of exhibitors will be updating participants on their latest products through 90-minute technical sessions. The sessions keep the sales pitch to a minimum and give attendees the opportunity to engage with high-level technical staff. We have a great lineup covering all the major components of residential- and commercial-scale systems, with and without storage.

SP: How are the panel sessions shaping up and what are some of the highlights?

RL: Each year we engage a diverse group of industry experts on a conference planning committee. The main objective is to come up with a short list of the most relevant and interesting topics for the 2-hour panel sessions. Using their input and feedback from last year’s attendees, we’ve arranged 16 of the most timely and focused presentations for PV sales and installation professionals. This year, we’ve focused more on energy storage, larger-scale systems and technical sales, while keeping important sessions on technical challenges and installation best practices.

SP: Is NABCEP getting a good response from vendors for participation in the equipment and services expo?

RL: Yes! We have sold out exhibit space every year so far and fully expect to sell out again. Exhibitor interest is very strong in this event because we put exhibitors in front of the most active, knowledgeable and experienced professionals in the country. Many exhibitors comment on how much more valuable this event is to them than the bigger trade shows are, because everyone they talk with is actually buying and installing product.

SP: According to GTM Research, the two largest national integration firms—SolarCity and Vivint Solar—accounted for 46% of the US residential solar market in the first half of 2015. How does the trend toward increasingly large installation companies impact national certification efforts?

RL: We originally intended the NABCEP PV Installation Professional certification for the one person a customer worked with to design, install and maintain a system. As companies grow larger, there’s a natural progression toward more specialization of the workforce. As such, it can now take quite a bit longer for an employee in a larger company to master the breadth of tasks covered in NABCEP’s job task analysis. Those who are able to achieve certification are held in higher regard within these companies and quickly move up the ranks. The needs of the industry have always guided NABCEP’s programs. As the industry evolves, we continue to adjust our programs and develop new credentials to meet stakeholder needs.

SP: Is NABCEP working on any new projects or certifications?

RL: We have a lot of new and exciting initiatives in 2016. First, the board has approved a major update to the NABCEP Entry Level Program. Tens of thousands of people have taken this exam over the past 10 years. It serves to identify those who have mastered the fundamentals of the technology and is a great tool for employers to use in hiring and promoting staff in a wide variety of positions. We will be rebranding the program as the NABCEP Associate, and a new experience-based pathway will allow anyone with 6 months of relevant work experience to qualify for the credential.

We are also just about to launch two new credentials targeting system inspectors, one for PV and one for solar heating. Reports from companies hired to perform comprehensive post-installation system inspections have found that most systems installed today still have code violations after the AHJ has approved them. We hope that these new credentials encourage code officials across the country to learn more about solar and what to look out for when inspecting these systems.

Finally, we will be conducting a major update and revision to the PV Installation Professional job task analysis this year. During this update, we will identify the knowledge and skills associated with the major divisions of system design, installation and maintenance that we see workers specializing in. Doing so will pave the way toward developing new credentials for people performing a portion of the overall job task analysis.

SP: Do you have any insight into where new markets for solar are emerging in North America now based on the demand for NABCEP certification?

RL: We’ve seen a growing market in the Southeast over the past few years. While I’m excited about the new market there and encouraged by the adoption of requirements for NABCEP credentials that we see in some of the utilities in these areas, my bigger concern is what I see happening in some of the existing markets around net metering, demand charges and other policies that have a dramatic impact on the economic viability of solar. Some states have seen hundreds of jobs disappear literally overnight. These attacks on solar are cropping up all across the country. It’s more important than ever for solar companies to pay attention and get involved.

SP: Several solar training organizations offer courses designed to help individuals prepare for NABCEP’s PV Installation Professional and PV Technical Sales certifications. What advice do you have to help solar professionals evaluate the various providers?

RL: Hundreds of schools, colleges, nonprofit organizations and private companies offer solar courses today. The vast majority offer only one or two introductory-level courses. These can be a great way to get started, but it’s naïve to think that you can learn everything needed to become a solar professional from one or two classes on the subject. The best programs offer a wide variety of courses and focus on renewable energy technology. They have a strong introductory level class or two, and intermediate and advanced courses in topics such as off-grid systems, technical sales, commercial-scale design, and maintenance and troubleshooting. In addition, while an online course can be very valuable, there’s no substitute for hands-on experience. Better training programs have a dedicated lab with a variety of different types of systems and components. Finally, if the goal is to prepare for one of our certification exams, instructors should have the certification themselves.

SP: What are the benefits of NABCEP’s Company Accreditation program and how does it differ from the certification an individual would acquire?

RL: NABCEP certifies individuals and accredits companies. Both certification and accreditation are ultimately about consumer protection. When we initially developed our certification programs, customers were primarily hiring individual contractors to install and maintain their solar equipment. Now customers are comparing quotes from different companies and have very little control over who actually designs and installs the system. The NABCEP Company Accreditation Program helps to ensure that the company has qualified staff; appropriate policies and procedures; a focus on worker safety; and commitments to ongoing staff training, quality assurance and ethical practice.

SP: We were pleased to see that NABCEP recently elected one of our contributing authors, Rebekah Hren, to its board of directors. What other opportunities does NABCEP have for professionals looking to support the organization?

RL: NABCEP wouldn’t exist without the contributions and dedication of industry experts. We have over 100 volunteers who serve on our board and various committees. We’re always looking for experienced professionals to provide guidance and technical assistance in the development and maintenance of our programs. If anyone is interested, please send a resume and letter of interest to info@nabcep.org. We also love having NABCEP Certified Professionals volunteer time at our booth at different conferences during the year to speak with people about the value of their certification and what it has meant for their careers.

SP: In addition to the Continuing Education Conference, what are some NABCEP-related dates industry professionals should be aware of in 2016?

RL: The next application deadline for certification exams is August 5, 2016. NABCEP Continuing Education training will be available at Intersolar North America in July and Solar Power International in September. Of course, people can check the SolarPro training calendar for other NABCEP CE Credit opportunities throughout the year.

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Optimizing PV project economics while continuing to ensure performance and reliability is increasingly an exercise in removing inefficiencies through improved high-level coordination among stakeholders. While the standardization and interoperability of components and systems are essential to economically solving a project of any size, it is the communication of cascading decisions within the project and the ability to find the best solution given a range of competing priorities that sets successful projects apart.

SunLink is one of the companies offering the tools to support just such a scenario for success. Founded in 2004, SunLink has expanded the scope of its product and service offerings from racking systems for commercial rooftops and ground-mounted arrays to a next-gen SCADA software platform and services that include engineering, installation, project management and, most recently, O&M via its partnership with MaxGen Energy Services. By offering an end-to-end solution for the projects that need it (often the small utility or commercial-scale segment of the industry), SunLink has garnered extensive expertise in solar project solutions.

Kate Trono, PE, is the vice president of products at SunLink. She heads the product management of roof, tracker and fixed-tilt mounting systems; leads the growth and execution of the PowerCare services division; manages SunLink’s TechHub team in expanding electrical and software product capabilities; and spearheads the Ideation Committee—SunLink’s cross-department idea generator. At the beginning of her SunLink career, Trono also managed a comprehensive 4-month earthquake-testing program of SunLink’s unattached roof-mount solar products. Trono holds a BS in civil engineering and an MS in structural engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

SP: What is the status of the product development effort for the ground-up tracker design you mentioned at the Solar Power International conference in Anaheim, California?

KT: We’ll be debuting a new tracker at SPI 2016. The concept really spun out of our Ideation Committee. Trackers offer a lot in terms of their increased energy production profile, but currently they’re targeted mainly to the massive utility-scale market. Plenty of inefficiencies can be hidden in projects of that scale, and custom product implementations are not unheard of. We’re applying our lessons learned from years in the commercial rooftop and fixed-tilt space: Products that are built upon standard components and assembled into systems that address any project challenge, whether it’s loose soil, steep terrain or a unique electrical wiring design, are the holy grail of solar solutions. Our mission is to deliver the best, most economical product for any size project. When we think of our challenge in that way, exciting things come out of the design process.

SP: SunLink entered the tracker market in 2014 with the purchase of ViaSol Energy Solutions’ tracker technology. What shifts in commercial and utility-scale project development influenced this decision?

KT: The US has excellent solar resources, particularly in direct normal irradiation, making it an ideal geography for trackers. Thanks to significant gains in module efficiencies, the economics of trackers got to the point where an investment made sense for our company and for our customers. Right now, utility-scale ground-mount systems are the most profitable projects. Trackers only help the economics on these projects. While each tracker architecture has its pros and cons, we wanted a durable solution that made sense in the current utility-scale market. The centralized drive approach, using components proven over decades in the heavy equipment industry, allows us to deliver a robust, reliable product to our partners while giving us the experience we needed to become tracker experts.

SP: What was the driver behind the addition of O&M to SunLink’s service offering? How does it improve project economics?

KT: With utility-scale systems, we often get only a sliver of insight into how customers are comparing different technologies and how that’s affecting the overall financials of a project. We’ll frequently hear, “What’s your racking price, and I’ll plug that number in.” But what we’ve seen since expanding our end-to-end project solutions for the commercial and small utility projects is that we can affect a lot more than just the steel price.

O&M costs become interesting when you start talking to the stakeholders who own the systems. Owners may have three monitoring systems on one site—the inverter’s system, the SCADA portal and a cloud-based data monitoring system—and then those three monitoring systems are compounded across a multitude of sites. Trying to figure out how to determine values like portfolio-level IRR, or what is actually happening in the systems they own or whether they should send someone out to a site to service equipment can be extremely difficult. There’s just so much data, and it’s all proprietary in very closed boxes that can’t talk to each other. SunLink is focusing on the services and technology that we can offer to affect issues like these.

SP: How is SunLink addressing pain points such as compatibility issues between PV plant data monitoring and command and control platforms?

KT: The key to this issue is to create a secure platform that maintains an open environment. I recently read Ted Koppel’s bestseller Lights Out, where Koppel articulates the concern that SCADA systems were designed “before the notion of cyber attacks had even occurred to anyone.” He interviews Craig Fugate, an administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying, “If someone was knowledgeable about the functioning of a SCADA system and succeeded in hacking into it, that individual could engineer ‘a series of events that seem totally unrelated’ but which could, according to Fugate, ‘turn the lights out very quickly over large areas.’” So for us, the priority is to deploy a complete next-gen SCADA solution, where we offer unparalleled energy security through both tamper-resistant hardware on-site and a hyper-secure cloud-based architecture. Basically, we’ve taken the lessons learned from FinTech and applied them to energy. We also need to coexist with legacy SCADA systems, since the last thing we want is to be another proprietary box. So with new or retrofit projects, we offer the full security solution. But with any other project in a portfolio, there’s still front-end compatibility and data analytics for superior business intelligence. Now you have an O&M offering for solar installations on a whole new level.

SP: What role does geotechnical testing play in SunLink’s service offering? Do you think that geotech is being adequately addressed industry-wide?

KT:  Several racking providers offer geotechnical services, and preproject pile-pullout testing is more often than not a requirement, even before a racking supplier secures a purchase order. For us, geotechnical services offer a way to work closely with the customer early in the process. We can better configure our products to more optimally suit the needs of a project when we know exactly how the foundations will be engineered; and we can take risk off the installer, which has the added benefit of reducing project costs. To see the benefits, however, racking companies need to be more comfortable with construction practices. There’s a statistical nature to using localized pull tests to generalize site-wide foundation designs, and there’s always going to be an element of “whatever it takes” to solve challenges encountered during construction. By better understanding the priorities of installers, we’re able to put our project solution recommendations in context, offering best-practice guidelines from the utility segment to the commercial side of the industry.

SP: What are some of SunLink’s more sophisticated considerations in engineering analyses?

KT:  For instance, with roof-mount project engineering, the load-sharing assumptions of a particular system are both complicated to get right and essential for proper engineering. To understand how strong each individual component of a product needs to be, we have to do significant testing on the stiffness of the system. This is something that can get pushed aside in the race toward reducing balance of system costs, but it is something that SunLink takes very seriously. No matter the size of the project, we’re analyzing the structural behavior of every element when subjected to wind load gusts and unbalanced snow loads.

SP: How has SunLink’s testing influenced requirements for roof-mount ballast-only array mounting systems?

KT: When I first started at SunLink as an engineer on our R&D team, I headed our shake-table testing. To my knowledge, SunLink is still the only solar company to have tested full-scale models of systems on a shake table. Together with Rutherford + Chekene, we developed a displacement-based analytical model that we verified through full-scale testing. We built out roofs with different surface conditions on the field station shake table at the UC Berkeley PEER laboratory and did a week of full-scale seismic testing with our ballasted products. This testing, underwritten in part by the California Public Utilities Commission, proved that our models accurately predicted how much a ballast-only system would move during an earthquake. This research then became the basis for guidelines published by the Structural Engineers Association of California PV Committee, which in turn served as the basis for the solar provisions in the 2015 International Building Code (IBC). Because earlier versions of the IBC required that all rooftop equipment be fastened to the building, the solar industry was hampered with a code-compliance issue that was not intended for PV. The 2015 IBC allows the use of a displacement-based seismic design approach for ballasted nonpenetrating rooftop arrays, although ultimately local AHJs have control over the interpretation of the code. SunLink is continuing to be a leader for this issue, and we are working today to bring greater clarity to the standards for ballasted roof systems in high seismic zones.

SP: Is the structural design of roof- and ground-mounted arrays relatively standardized at this point, or are new structural design challenges still coming across your desk?

KT: As an industry we’ve come a long way, but we still have a lot to learn. Our R&D program is as active as ever. Right now, for example, we’re working with our customers and thought leaders in the industry to continue to improve understanding of the implications of ground-mount racking systems’ stiffness and frequency, for both fixed tilt and trackers.

Structural engineers have long thought about the dynamic response of bridges and skyscrapers, worrying that resonance could (and has) caused collapse of otherwise sound designs. But solar has never been deployed at the scale we’re currently seeing. Since structural engineers typically learn the most after a series of failures, the low volume of installed solar projects and relatively short timeline of operation of these systems has inhibited the drawing of research conclusions. To avoid the failures that would spur changes, we’re using analytical models to determine the frequency of our systems, checking against full-scale installed projects to ensure accuracy, and then running those models against various wind scenarios. The conclusion is always a direct correlation: more stiffness equals a more robust system. However, adding stiffness adds cost. That’s unacceptable from a project economics perspective, and a tough sell to customers when the requirements are not written in any structural code. Therefore, the most recent approach we’ve taken is the ability to actively monitor a system in real time, using accelerometers to gauge how our systems are performing in the field. When we match behavior to the wind data we’re getting from the site, we can use machine learning to teach our systems to move out of the way of the wind. In this way, we achieve multiple goals: We save cost by reducing metal; we ensure that our system can withstand any wind event without hitting resonance; and, by altering the tracker’s angle slightly rather than going to stow, we limit the extent to which our tracker is at a suboptimal tilt.

SP: SunLink recently introduced the Large-Scale GMS Portrait ground-mount system. What design advantages does the portrait system offer?

KT: The industry has been debating whether portrait- or landscape-oriented modules are the best approach in fixed-tilt ground-mount systems. We decided to exit that debate and provide both. Many of our competitors have abandoned landscape for portrait because it’s inherently lower cost, since it eliminates a layer of structure. However, that doesn’t take into account energy production. When a module is mounted in landscape, the bottom, middle and top substrings contain two rows of 12 cells each. In this orientation, a panel with shade on the bottom row of cells functions at 66% of its rated output. However, a module mounted in portrait with shading on the bottom row of cells stops producing power entirely. We thought it was important to continue to offer both solutions to serve the needs of customers with different project priorities.

Given that most manufacturers are moving to a portrait orientation, we wanted to differentiate our portrait solution. For example, we can follow a grade of up to 20%, whether it is constant or rolling terrain. That helps reduce project cost because it eliminates some civil engineering work and site grading. Because of drought issues, site grading is not permitted in some areas, and existing vegetation must be left in place. Terrain-following systems can make the difference between whether sites like these are developed or not.

SP: There appears to be a significant transformation under way at SunLink.

KT: We’re very proud of our racking and mounting legacy, and we believe it’s that legacy that sets us apart as energy solutions providers. Making projects successful from a holistic perspective has always been our goal, whether through engineering and project management, geotechnical and installation services or, most recently, a complete next-gen SCADA platform and O&M resources. Our focus is on solving the energy industry’s big-picture challenges, which are diverse. They include driving solar costs down so renewable energy is more competitive in more markets, and improving grid stability and security for peace of mind when you turn the lights on. It’s only once we’ve solved these issues that the solar industry truly will be able to dominate the energy mix.

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While there are a few notable instances of brothers working in the solar industry, it is uncommon. James and Andrew Worden are two such brothers. They operate distinct companies and apply their product development, manufacturing and business expertise to specific solar product classes and market segments.

In 1989, James Worden and his wife, Anita, cofounded Solectria Corporation, a developer and manufacturer of electric and hybrid vehicle components. They sold the business in 2005 and launched Solectria Renewables, shifting their focus to the design and production of PV inverters. Today, Solectria Renewables offers an extensive inverter product line, as well as performance monitoring and BOS components. James holds a BS in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and serves as Solectria’s CEO.

Andrew Worden is the CEO and founder of GameChange Racking. He is also the chairman, CEO and majority investor of Barron Partners, a global cleantech investment firm, and the CEO of Soltas Energy, an EPC that develops and finances commercial and utility-scale PV projects (this company is in the final stages of being sold). Andrew graduated from Harvard University with a BA in physical sciences and studied engineering at MIT. He also studied finance and marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

James Worden, Solectria Renewables

SP: Since its founding in 2005, Solectria Renewables has continually expanded its inverter product family. What is the chronology of the company’s inverter model introductions?

JW: Our first product was a 10 kW 3-phase commercial inverter that was originally UL listed in 2004 while we were still in the electric vehicle business. This inverter grew to become the PVI 10–15KW product line that is still sold today. The second introduction was our residential line, which started with 1.8 kW and 2.5 kW products and gradually grew to include models up to 7.5 kW. We introduced our PVI 50–100KW product family in 2005. Through the years we have continually upgraded each of these lines with new technologies, features and options. Our goal is to develop highly integrated inverter systems, increase system reliability, and reduce the total installed cost and labor at PV jobsites. Solectria inverter features include standard ac and dc disconnects, ac service entry ratings, and RS-485 and Ethernet communications. We have added fully integrated factory-built and tested options, many suggested by our customers, such as stainless steel enclosures, air filters, string combiners and subcombiners or recombiners. We introduced the first solar subcombiners that utilize circuit breakers, eliminating the need for external dc disconnects, aswell as subarray monitoring, revenue-grade monitoring and even options for different disconnect orientations. In 2010, we launched our Smart Grid Inverter (SGI) line of 225 kW–500 kW inverters with the highest level of grid integration in the industry for this size inverter. In 2011, we brought our Megawatt Solar Stations to market. Last year, we introduced a new line of 3-phase transformerless string inverters ranging from 14 kW to 28 kW. This year we are rolling out a completely new line of transformerless 3.8 kW–7.6 kW residential inverters and 500 kW– 750 kW 1,000 Vdc utility-scale inverters with external transformers.

SP: Are there technical advantages to integrating Solectria’s monitoring products and BOS equipment with Solectria inverter systems?

JW: Historically, we offered products closely related to the inverter because we could design and build a cost-competitive product. In 2007, we introduced SolrenView web-based monitoring, and in 2008 we introduced string combiners. However, our inverters were always agnostic to monitoring and combiner solutions. Going forward, that is changing a bit, as more controls and monitoring are being requested and required in the combiner box, such as arc-fault detection, string monitoring and rapid shutdown. An integrated, complete solution has more synergy.

SP: How does Solectria address an inverter’s reliability and serviceability during its design phase?

JW: Solectria Renewables emphasizes reliability and serviceability as top-level goals at all phases of design. We have the benefit of 25 years of power electronics engineering and manufacturing experience from our electric vehicle history. Electric vehicle power electronics needed to be reliable and lightweight, and to operate in the harshest of conditions. These same features serve us well today. Lightweight products are easier to service. The field-swappable sealed power stage used in our central inverters increases reliability and durability and greatly reduces service time. This keeps uptime at a maximum in the rare event that a problem occurs. Solectria equipment is designed to operate for more than 20 years, so easy preventative maintenance and service are critical design features. For hardware design, MTBF [mean time between failures] and useful life targets are carefully developed and measured for optimal life and low-failure rates. For software, robust implementation of features such as automatic recovery from disturbances and rejection of site-specific issues such as system variation are critical goals. Solectria has developed extensive reliability guidelines for all designs from our decades of high-power inverter experience. Reliability tests are performed on every design, including HALT [highly accelerated life test], long-duration testing and environmental stress testing.

SP: In October 2013, Solectria launched its 1,000 Vdc SGI 500XTM and SGI 750XTM central inverters. How rapidly do you expect system designs to transition to 1,000 Vdc in the US, and in what market segments in particular? Do you see any significant obstacles to this transition?

JW: Solectria has always taken the position that one size does not fit all. This is why we offer one of the most comprehensive product suites today, including a large array of 600 Vdc products. We have added 1,000 Vdc units in both 3-phase string inverters and 500 kW–750 kW central inverter models. The 1,000 Vdc adoption will depend on local electrical and safety codes. Large-scale ground-mounted projects have and will continue to be the first adopters. Economic forces move developers to 1,000 Vdc, but compliance with electrical and safety codes always wins. Currently, 600 Vdc systems are established, proven reliable and economic, and for these reasons they will continue to be a significant segment of the market.

SP: California’s Rule 21, which is currently being revised, addresses interconnection, operation and metering requirements for distributed generators. What is your perspective on the Rule 21 revision effort and the advancement of smart-grid inverter capabilities?

JW: Solectria Renewables is a strong supporter of advanced grid interface requirements such as California’s Rule 21. We are active in the development of the new requirements to ensure optimal implementation in our products. Solectria has multiple advanced pilot programs with utilities in California and elsewhere to prove performance to the new Rule 21 requirements. Many of our customers have been asking for more smart-grid capabilities that are not currently allowed under IEEE 1547. One example is active grid-voltage regulation to avoid inverter tripping on high-line or higher-impedance ac output circuits. Many customers in this situation could get higher overall system energy output when the inverter is capable of scaling back output power slightly to avoid driving the ac line above trip limits at high-irradiance levels.

SP: Have Solectria central inverters been deployed in locations with high levels of distributed generation (DG)? What special considerations do these applications present, and how is Solectria addressing them?

JW: We have deployed many inverters to areas with high DG penetration. We currently support adjustable maximum power limiting to help meet interconnection requirements, programmable ramp up/down rates for power production and customizable power factor configurations. Many other smart-grid features are in development and reliability validation for next-generation requirements such as Rule 21. High DG penetration will require more-advanced integration and communication with the grid and will help make the grid more robust.

SP: What is your perspective on central versus distributed systems? Do you expect distributed designs to gain traction in utility-scale projects?

JW: You never install solar in the same place twice, and each deployment has a unique set of challenges. In some cases, the challenges are best addressed with a central inverter; in some cases, with multiple string inverters. The dynamics of each installation dictate the right solution. Solectria’s ability to offer cost-competitive solutions in 14 kW–28 kW 3-phase string inverters for 600 Vdc and 1,000 Vdc designs increases the number of situations where this becomes a viable or even preferred solution. Using large central inverters for utility-scale plants is still the dominant approach. We expect that to remain consistent. Medium-size fully integrated 50 kW–500 kW central inverters are perfect for systems where a transformer is required or desired, or where designers prefer fewer individual inverters at a site.

SP: Does Solectria have plans to develop products that integrate solar energy storage? If so, what market segment will be the initial focus?

JW: Solectria Renewables is poised to provide state-of-the-art hardware that can integrate with either short- or long-term energy storage. The technology in our inverters today can support any number of storage solutions. Due to our background in electric vehicles, rapid vehicle charging stations are a particular interest.

Andrew Worden, Barron Partners and GameChange Racking

SP: You serve in an executive capacity at Barron Partners and GameChange Racking. How do the companies complement one another under your oversight?

AW: Barron Partners has invested more than $480 million since 2002, most heavily in cleantech manufacturing companies. This background allowed Barron to build contacts in the finance community that help us provide capital introduction services to GameChange Racking’s customers. With our background in metal fabrication at Barron, and my combined educational background in engineering and finance, I saw an opportunity to build an extraordinary PV structure company. We founded GameChange Racking on the premise of bringing double value to customers: labor cost savings from fast install plus cost-effective racks. We were able to validate many generations of products for roof and ground systems on our own plants, greatly accelerating the product development curve. Once we felt that we had well-developed products at a very compelling value, we initiated ETL testing to the UL 2703 and UL 467 standards, and wind tunnel testing. We launched the company to the marketplace about a year ago, and the market has enthusiastically received our products. We have grown dramatically, with rapid sales growth nationwide for our roof systems, ballasted ground-mount and post-driven ground-mount systems.

SP: Over the last several years, numerous companies have entered what appears to be a crowded racking manufacturing space. Considering these market conditions, how do you differentiate GameChange’s products?

AW: Our products enable fast installation due to patented engineering innovations, such as GameChange’s Pour-in-Place ballasted ground-mount technology, a snap-together roof system and a seamless-fit post-driven system that eliminates all brackets. We offer value pricing for high-quality products that carry a 20-year warranty. Additionally, we offer racking system engineering stamps in 31 US states.

SP: GameChange offers low-slope roof, and post and ballasted ground-mount racking systems. Are you seeing a significant growth trend in one product line or a particular application?

AW: All systems are showing dramatic growth for GameChange; however, the Pour-in-Place Ballasted Ground system is a substantial innovation. As such, we are seeing the largest potential growth rate in that product.

SP: What efforts is GameChange making to drive cost out of commercial and utility-scale racking systems and their installation?

AW: Our product designs eliminate racking system components, which in turn speeds installations and drives down installation costs. Our purchasing power reduces costs through bulk metal buying. In addition, we utilize certain methods that greatly reduce labor cost in manufacturing.

SP: Where are GameChange Racking’s manufacturing and warehousing facilities located? Why were these particular locations selected?

AW: Manufacturing and warehousing locations are selected based on proximity to customers and on local labor rates. GameChange Racking manufactures its products at facilities in Kansas, Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas, and warehouses in Kansas and Massachusetts.

SP: What is the status of GameChange’s UL 467 and UL 2703 certifications?

AW: We have completed ETL testing to the UL 467 and UL 2703 standards for all of our roof and ground-mount systems. Also, in January we completed wind tunnel testing for our complete product line. Wind tunnel testing is becoming increasingly important for customers to see that their support structure vendor has accurate loading data to correctly engineer structure material strength as well as ballasting and embedment requirements.

James and Andrew Worden

SP: Why did you decide to enter the solar industry? Was one of you instrumental in getting the other involved?

JW: I had been involved in renewables since I was in high school. I built a solar electric car that inspired me to move on to engineering and MIT. I focused on electric vehicles for many years after MIT as the cofounder of Solectria Corporation, along with my wife and partner, Anita. We were fortunate enough to build a successful business. Solectria engineers were experts in power conversion, so it was a natural progression to offer a solar inverter that could be used to power your home and recharge your car. In 2005, we sold the electric vehicle segment of Solectria to focus entirely on PV inverters and accessories for the solar space. I look back over the past 25 years and feel like the luckiest person alive. I have been able to lead a great team, creating US manufacturing jobs, pioneering some of the most advanced solar technology today and knowing we are having a positive impact on the planet.

AW: Barron Partners has had investments in the solar industry and metal fabrication since 2004, primarily because we believed that cleantech was the right thing to do ethically and that it would eventually become cost-effective competition for fossil and nuclear energy. Over the last 8 years, I watched James and Anita lead Solectria at a dramatic growth rate despite high solar module prices, which piqued my interest in PV. When module prices dropped under $1.50 per watt, I saw that the numbers were penciling out to invest in solar projects and that the time had arrived for PV to really scale. We started Soltas Energy as a wholly owned subsidiary of Barron Partners and built many rooftop and ground-mounted solar plants, ranging from 370 kW to 3.5 MW in capacity. As Soltas built these plants, we felt that there was a lack of cost-effective, easy-to-install PV support structure solutions. We have now signed an agreement to sell all of our operating power plants and to exit that business to focus totally on GameChange Racking.

SP: What is the level of your involvement in each other’s business ventures? Do you work together on specific system installations?

JW: Solectria Renewables and Andrew’s businesses are separate and have no relation (no pun intended). That being said, my brother and I are in complementary segments of the business, so we don’t have the same competitive interests as we had in high school, when we both liked the same girl, but I digress. Andrew and I are both committed to the betterment of the industry as a whole. In our minds, the success of the solar industry is good for everyone. We share ideas on how the industry can become more cost competitive, while maintaining a healthy long-term business proposition.

AW: We help each other brainstorm about general industry trends and how to help customers meet their PV system needs. We have no active involvement in each other’s businesses. However, our products are often installed in the same projects, which is great to see.

SP: What are your short- and long-term goals for advancing the North American PV industry? What key issues does the industry need to address?

JW: There is no doubt that cost is always at the front of everyone’s mind. We have come a long way, and in many regions, solar is already at grid parity. The solution will not be a single component; it will be overall system designs becoming more cost effective. Streamlining soft costs as well as BOS costs will propel the industry to the next level. Educating customers about the value of solar is also critical. Many people do not fully understand the true value that solar offers. Of course there’s the value of the renewable power generation, but there is also an incredible set of grid control features we can offer utilities that can offset other capital investments and improve grid quality and reliability. As an industry, we can offer a distributed energy generation model that future generations will be proud of.

AW: My roots as an investment fund manager have helped me understand what solar investors require: total system cost reduction while meeting the demands for bankability. Now that module prices have dropped dramatically but stabilized, BOS cost reduction is the hotspot requirement for PV to reach grid parity more widely. At GameChange, we are fortunate to be able to make a difference for our customers because we offer systems that are not only cost effective, but also fast to install. This has been a critical differentiator in closing our larger customers, who are not accepting overpriced industry offerings just because certain companies are bankable.

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In the fall of 2011, Colorado-based Namasté Solar led the foundation of Amicus Solar Cooperative (amicussolar.com). The goal was to develop a new model for PV equipment purchasing that not only leveraged the collective buying power of independently owned installation companies throughout the US, but also facilitated the sharing of best practices and other information among its members. Stephen Irvin served as Namasté Solar’s chief financial officer before stepping into a dedicated full-time role as president of Amicus Solar Cooperative in 2012. Amicus currently includes 23 members, with 36 office locations in 20 states. Each member is an equal owner of Amicus, with 100% of the cooperative owned by its members.

SP: During your tenure at Namasté Solar starting in 2006, what were some of the major industry developments and trends that affected independent solar integrators?

SI: The largest impacts on independent integrators have historically come from local policy dynamics, access to project finance, and competition from large national solar integrators and developers. Like many integrators, Namasté Solar was focused on its local market. Our annual planning was by necessity always a function of local policy, and specifically what the utility incentive program was going to look like that year. Any changes proposed to our public utilities commission, or that the utility unilaterally enacted, would directly impact the future success of our company. I remember when we wrote some of the first power purchase agreements [PPAs] in Colorado. Once the PPA and third-party–owned [TPO] lease markets started to develop, we had a spotlight on the state, and the large integrators from California were here immediately. Our partnership with PPA and TPO lease providers was critical. Those who didn’t have access to project financing struggled. Many local integrators have had to close their doors over the years. In early 2011, our utility incentive program was suspended unexpectedly, and that really hurt all of us. Companies that did not have a deep enough backlog of sold projects to install had to close down. Likewise, when the larger California integrators came in with their lease offerings, it was very hard for those without a lease product to compete.

SP: What is your perspective on the growth of national integrators?

SI: In other service industries, we see national firms coexisting with local independents. We’ve all chosen at one point or another to go to either our local coffee shop or a Starbucks. Having that choice is important and needs to be preserved to ensure a healthy industry and economy. If the national PV integrators’ goal is to remove that choice, then our communities will be worse off. Future customers may not receive the same level of quality workmanship and customer service due to a lack of competition.

SP: What was the primary motivation behind the creation of Amicus Solar Cooperative in 2011, and what companies were involved?

SI: There were six companies at our inaugural meeting: GreenLogic, Hudson Solar, LightWave Solar, Namasté Solar, RevoluSun and Technicians for Sustainability. These companies laid the foundation for Amicus and outlined its business plan for the coming years. Amicus is a purchasing cooperative that is 100% owned by its member companies. There are more than 250 successful purchasing cooperatives in the US that provide aggregated procurement of electrical supplies, automotive parts, HVAC supplies, general hardware and lumber, for example. A few well-known purchasing cooperatives are Ace Hardware, True Value Hardware and Best Western hotels. Amicus has brought together a special group of like-minded solar companies that believe in the power of sharing best practices and pooling purchases to receive lower pricing on both the products we sell and the services we utilize. At the same time, Amicus offers vendors a preferential relationship with dependable customers, allowing those vendors to maintain or acquire market share in existing and emerging markets with minimal acquisition cost. It’s a benefit for both the integrators and the vendors.

SP: What are some of the primary challenges that independent integrators face, and how is Amicus helping them overcome these challenges?

SI: I touched on some of the primary challenges earlier: project finance, national competition and policy changes. But there are constant challenges that pop up every day for a solar business owner, many of which you couldn’t have imagined a week earlier. A key benefit within our group is that Amicus members are not alone. They don’t have to try to solve all the challenges they face in isolation. In Amicus, you essentially have your own board of advisors to tap any time you need help—and these advisors are running very similar businesses, dealing with similar problems. Whether it’s trying to solve a sensitive HR issue, managing your risk in EPC contract language or finding the most efficient install crew makeup, the other Amicus members are there to lend an ear, offer advice and compare notes on best practices. It’s become an amazing support network.

SP: Namasté Solar has been a very successful pioneer in employee-owned business operation and progressive business practices, such as consensus-based decision making. Have you brought some of these principles over to Amicus?

SI: Absolutely. A lot of what I learned about cooperatives, democratic ownership, process and governance at Namasté Solar has been very helpful and directly applicable. For example, a primary part of my job at Amicus is building consensus, and we utilize a committee structure to help facilitate our decision making. We also maintain an open-book management policy, so everyone is fully informed about our operations. This is important since the members are equal owners. Consensus building can take time—but once we’ve come to a decision, you see more engagement and commitment from everyone. It’s imperative that all members have full transparency into the inner workings of Amicus, and I intend for this to always be the case.

SP: Amicus currently has 23 members. What are some of the main attributes of the cooperative that are drawing interest from independent solar integrators?

SI: They get the opportunity to become an equal business partner in a very special venture. By working together, Amicus members have benefits that would not be available were they to act alone. There are two primary financial benefits: lower pricing on products or services, and distributed cash dividends based on purchase volumes. Since members own Amicus, they receive dividends from Amicus earnings that are tied to the amount of total purchases each member makes from the cooperative. In addition, they get to be a part of a community of friendly companies that are working together to help each other succeed. The great collaborators of the world will lead the way to a healthier and more vibrant future. Amicus is just creating the space for collaboration.

SP: What are the eligibility requirements for becoming a member?

SI: We’ve been referring to integrators, but Amicus also includes small- and medium-sized EPCs and some members heavily focused on development. In general, we look for experienced companies that are a good cultural fit with the other members, have a clear commitment to the highest quality of workmanship, and exhibit principled business values and ethics. Anyone who has been in the business of selling and constructing PV projects for many years, and who knows how to handle the ups and downs of running this type of company, is an attractive candidate. We also look for companies that can contribute to our collective purchasing quickly, and those our vendors view as excellent customers. The cultural fit is harder to discern. It’s more of a gut feeling I get after speaking with a company’s leadership team and learning about their company goals and vision. Ideally, we want a company that is excited about sharing information openly and understands the value to be gained by doing so.

SP: How is the cooperative managed?

SI: Each member company has one vote. We have a board of directors and bylaws. Each director is a representative from a member company. We typically have two seats open up every year, and member reps are allowed to nominate themselves for the next board election. Below the board, we have a layer of committees that discuss issues and vote on recommendations to present to the board. We are democratically run, so majority rules. With open-book management, members are able to vote on various issues easily.

SP: What is the platform for the exchange of technical and business information between the cooperative’s members?

SI: We recently started using a solution called Podio, which facilitates online collaboration within a business or among multiple businesses. It allows us to share files, discuss ideas, provide feedback on various vendors and products, make announcements and ask questions of the entire group.

SP: Amicus offers equipment from several well-established vendors, including AE Solar Energy, Canadian Solar, LG, PanelClaw, Power-One, Resolute Digital, SMA America, Suniva and Unirac. Are you actively trying to increase the number of equipment manufacturers that Amicus represents? If so, what drives the decision-making process to work with new vendors?

SI: We have a decision matrix that provides a weighted score for each vendor and is based on a set of attributes that Amicus members value, such as the dependability of the vendor’s module supply, lead times, customer service, product features, quality and pricing. We also look at the ability to bring significant purchasing volume to a vendor so that it makes sense for us to create a relationship.

SP: Are equipment manufacturers generally receptive to working with a cooperative business model?

SI: Definitely. Amicus has a clear responsibility to bring reliable, dependable and financially strong customers to our vendors. We use our own knowledge of what makes a successful integrator to find the right members, and thus provide vendors a group of great customers all at once. Our goal is to dramatically reduce the cost of acquiring sales for each of our preferred vendors.

SP: How does Amicus handle equipment warehousing and product delivery?

SI: Currently, Amicus doesn’t touch the product. Everything is shipped directly to the member warehouse location or project site.

SP: What trends are you seeing in the equipment purchased by cooperative members? Are there increased sales of any particular product subclass, such as 1,000 Vdc–rated equipment or module-level power electronics?

SI: I am seeing more interest in a distributed approach to commercial projects with the use of 3-phase string inverters. There definitely seems to be a shift happening. The majority still use central inverters, but I could see this changing. Also, the use of 1,000 Vdc modules and inverters is becoming more common. Some members focus solely on 1,000 Vdc designs to save on BOS and install labor costs.

SP: Does Amicus currently assist its members with the development of financial products, such as zero-down leases?

SI: Most of our members are working with TPO lease providers. Plus, Amicus is working on developing a residential loan product for members. We are starting to see some shifts from lease to loan in various markets. Another focus for Amicus is commercial project financing. We are evaluating the option to aggregate our commercial projects for a single investor. Together, we have the scale they are looking for.

SP: What do you think the future looks like for independent integrators?

SI: The future is bright for independents. Project financing will become more readily accessible and less expensive. We need to continue working on our soft costs. For example, acquiring a new customer is a very expensive process for most PV integrators right now, and Amicus is focusing on how our members can reduce the cost. In Boulder, we have a local hardware store called McGuckin Hardware that is a member of the True Value purchasing cooperative. It’s been around since 1955, and it currently employs 250 folks. Right down the street is a Home Depot. Both have their place in our community, and the same will be true for solar integrators.

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After graduating from Colorado State University in 1997 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Tobin Booth spent 6 formative years working for solar companies that specialized in power electronics, module manufacturing and system installation. In the process, he observed that the commercial solar industry suffered from a lack of coordination between technology providers and system designers and installers. This disconnect made it more difficult to implement even relatively small PV projects, and Booth saw it as an impediment to progress—one that needed to be eliminated to meet the growing demand for increasingly complex and larger systems. With this in mind, in 2003 Booth founded Blue Oak Energy, a full-service PV system design, engineering and construction firm. In the decade since, the company has provided a range of professional services to the public, commercial and utility market sectors, with a cumulative project portfolio approaching 500 MW.

SP: Congratulations on Blue Oak Energy’s 10-year anniversary. Given the size of the North American solar industry today—not to mention the size of the projects it is deploying—there is clearly a niche for a specialty technical firm like yours. But in 2003, the annual grid-connected PV capacity in the US was less than 50 MW, which is probably smaller than some individual projects that your company is working on now. Can you take us back to the early years? What did a typical project look like? And how was the company structured?
TB: In late 2002, I secured a contract position to provide engineering and electrical contracting activities across a module manufacturer’s US solar projects. My wife and I relocated to California with $2,000 and a moving truck for that opportunity in early 2003. I was so fortunate to be surrounded by the most experienced technical professionals in the solar business prior to, and during, that 2003 contract-engineering role. Though I did not know it at the time, this was the launching pad for Blue Oak Energy. The company was originally based out of my apartment living room and various client offices. Over time, I began performing engineering and electrical installation work for a diverse group of inverter manufacturers and system integrators. My goal was simple: work in solar and pay the bills. There was, of course, no company structure then. In 2005, one of my clients secured what was then a very large ground-mounted solar project—600 kW. That installation was a turning point for me because I learned how to price engineering services on a per-project basis and started hiring engineers. I found great satisfaction in engineering PV systems, and this 600 kW solar job helped me recognize some of our strengths and weaknesses as an industry. After the successful completion of this initial project, my nascent company secured a landmark project: Google’s 2 MW system at its Mountain View headquarters.

SP: What does a typical project look like today? And how many people does Blue Oak Energy currently employ?
TB: Today, the Blue Oak Energy team is 50 people strong. We have a living, breathing company culture with a seasoned management team and internally developed tools and standard practices. We outgrew the living room and now occupy a stand-alone building in a business park near the University of California, Davis, campus. Many of our engineering projects today are 1 MW to 20 MW utility-scale installations for which we provide full-service engineering. Our multidisciplinary technical team of electrical, civil, structural and mechanical engineers located under one roof helps bring continuity to a job and streamlines the engineering cycle. While the large projects are exciting, we also find great satisfaction in distributed-generation PV systems. We frequently have many smaller 50 kW to 2 MW solar projects ongoing at any time. When we kick off the engineering on a new project, we typically assign it to an engineering project manager (EPM) who operates a technical team of two to four people. The EPM can manage most of the work, but some projects are so large that we often have more than a dozen technical people working through the details to deliver permit and construction plans. In 2007, we decided we would like to not only design but also build solar projects because many of us have electrical contracting and journeyman electrician backgrounds. We wanted to help a few customers find the ideal solutions for their challenging solar projects and also grow our scope. Our first client for full design build was Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), the outdoor retail company. We built eight rooftop PV systems totaling 700 kW for REI in 2008. Since then, we have completed construction on about 10 MW of solar projects.

SP: How has the company managed that growth? Has it ever been difficult to match staffing levels to the demand for your services?
TB: This is a very difficult industry in which to build a business. The project cycle has become predictable enough that you know you’re going to lose money in Q1 every year and be very busy in the remaining quarters as customers move to capture tax-based incentives with their projects. In addition to this work cycle, matching staff levels to customer needs remains an ongoing challenge. Fortunately, we have outstanding management and leadership teams. We have managed our growth by making all the key decisions together, working closely together and listening to each other. One of the best decisions I made was to build an advisory board made up of highly experienced business contacts. Their independent judgment and guidance have helped us pull together a mature management structure early in our growth.

SP: You recently added in-house civil engineering, structural engineering, medium-voltage design and SCADA engineering to your services. What led you to bring these resources in house?
TB: We brought these supporting professions and capabilities internal to Blue Oak to better control quality, delivery speed and value engineering for our customers.

SP: Blue Oak also operates a commissioning and O&M services division. How has your company’s approach to system O&M evolved over the years?
TB: We came to recognize that operations and maintenance for PV systems is not an annual service offering, limited to rolling a truck for response to a one-time event. O&M is a 25-year marathon that entails long-term risk aversion and investment return for projects. We currently maintain a portfolio of solar projects across the US for various customers. Our O&M approach has evolved to take on more of the operational and performance risks, which our customers see as money well spent.

SP: Do you feel that the US solar industry is adequately addressing O&M requirements for commercial and utility-scale systems?
TB: O&M costs are underestimated in most cases, and my sense is that it’s related to project financing processes. It’s hard enough to secure a customer and project, and then there’s the challenge of financing the project within a framework of metrics and consultants that make the financer comfortable. We’re a young industry, and only a few companies have the data on actual versus predicted O&M costs. Fewer still have performed the analysis to adjust their O&M budgets, or acquired an understanding of the fact that O&M costs are not purely formulaic—they are project specific.

SP: Blue Oak Energy sold its sister products-based company, Blue Oak PV Products, in 2010. The BOS equipment line included the first-available disconnecting PV source-circuit combiners. What drove Blue Oak to develop disconnecting combiners?
TB: We developed a combiner box for commercial rooftop projects in 2005 because we did not find any available products listed to UL 1741 that met our criteria. We wanted some basic building blocks and options available with which we could standardize our designs. We eventually took the design further to include a load-break–rated dc disconnect that could be opened under load to service the PV array, or to replace faulty or broken modules, without a major disruption to the system’s energy production. As that component business grew, our management team recognized that a product business was a distraction from what we really wanted to do—engineer and construct PV systems—so we sold the HomeRun combiner box product line to SunLink in 2010.

SP: Do you feel that there is better coordination between product manufacturers and system designers and installers today than there was 10 years ago? Do manufacturers reach out to Blue Oak for input on how to improve product design parameters or mechanical features?
TB: Yes, absolutely. The PV industry is much more sophisticated today than it was a decade ago. We work very closely with some product manufacturers to understand their product limitations and identify ways to exploit unpublished features. We also see many others in the industry doing the same thing to gain a competitive edge. We continue to work with a number of equipment manufacturers to improve their products and streamline the industry. It’s an honor to collaborate with product manufacturers, and the innovations taking place are extremely positive.

SP: What is Blue Oak’s current design philosophy for array-to-inverter capacity ratios?
TB: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Under the previous California Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), a designer could not put more performance test conditions (PTC) power on the inverter than its PTC rating. That left about 25% of the weighted average inverter-power rating unutilized across the entire SGIP. Today, inverters are often dc loaded with between 110% and 140% of the ac power limit or rating. Frequently, the site constraints and inverter sizes define the inverter loading for the project designer. While a developer might want to load a 1 MW inverter system with a 1.4 MW solar array, sometimes the site limits the array size.

SP: Has Blue Oak developed commercial systems using ac modules or microinverters? If so, what are the benefits and limitations of this approach?
TB: We have engineered and also installed a few commercial-scale microinverter systems. One such unique system was used on a carport with two thin-film modules connected in parallel to a single microinverter. The benefits are mainly as advertised by microinverter manufacturers: greater energy harvest due to distributed maximum peak power tracking, fewer dc voltage drop issues and so on. However, the ac microinverter architecture is not always the best economic fit for a consistently sun-soaked site.

SP: Blue Oak has been active in the California commercial and utility PV market since the inception of the $2.4 billion California Solar Initiative (CSI) incentive program in 2007. As this program winds down in 2013, do you consider it to be a success?
TB: From a market perspective, yes, I consider the CSI to be a success. There were some intentional and very wise changes made to the preceding SGIP program that made the CSI program more effective. The CSI is a good example of public sector investment in renewable energy projects rather than products or technology. The CSI program has done more to stimulate business in the renewable energy sector than some of the public investment grant programs that focus on manufacturing.

SP: How do you think the California solar market will evolve in the absence of the CSI program?
TB: Many retail rate schedules currently make some commercial solar systems financially feasible without incentives. As utility rates increase, especially among the investor-owned utilities, I think the California solar market is going to experience healthy growth for a long time.

SP: What do you think is the greatest challenge facing the solar industry today?
TB: Regulatory consistency. The primary reason the PV industry is not as innovative as it could be is because of regulatory inconsistencies that make it difficult to build and operate a business. This includes challenges and issues associated with interconnection, tax credits, financing and permitting, which ultimately add up to  continued on page 84 costly confusion for system developers and customers wanting to install PV systems. Solar is a simple technology, but unfortunately the regulations and utility infrastructure create a lot of impediments to projects. If we could find a way to streamline the land use, interconnection, inspection, approval and tax credit processes, and reduce other sunk costs, then we could achieve the consistency needed to generate a more predictable cash flow cycle in the solar industry.

SP: What industry developments are you most excited about?
TB: There are many technical developments and product cost reductions to be enthusiastic about, but it’s the regulatory mechanisms that I find most exciting. A robust marketplace is created where there is robust support. In California, I am optimistic about the Community Solar Bill, SB43. This bill, introduced by Senator Lois Wolk, enables a PV system located in a remote place to credit an electrical energy meter in a different location. Think about it: An energy consumer like Starbucks, which pays retail rates across a number of different locations, could produce energy from a 2 MW array on a brownfield or industrial site and offset a large portion of its electrical energy consumption across all its meters. The California Feed-In Tariff (FIT) Bill, SB32, is also something to be optimistic about. The FIT was on track to be a great bill in 2000, but the requirement to track to the market price referent derailed it. Once we get this fixed, many systems 3 MW and smaller will be producing clean solar energy at a fixed rate for the next 30 years in California. This is just what’s happening in California, where only a portion of our work is done. There are many similar bills in Texas, North Carolina, New York, Florida and other states that will facilitate the creation of a predictable solar energy industry. Finally, I am extremely optimistic about what we are hearing from the White House about a focus on the clean energy sector.

SP: What are you most proud of?
TB: I entered the solar industry because I believed in the technology and wanted to take part in the evolution of our energy mix. Along the way, I discovered that the people aspect of this industry far outweighs any other philosophical drive. I am most proud of the personal growth and expansion of talents I have witnessed in our staff at Blue Oak Energy. I’ve watched my team members get married, buy homes, have children, obtain professional engineering licenses and deliver large and challenging solar projects against all odds. Without question, it’s about the people.

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Bill Brooks, principal of Brooks Engineering, is a registered professional engineer in both North Carolina and California. A consultant to the PV industry on a variety of topics - performance, troubleshooting and training - his primary focus since 1992 has been the analysis and testing of PV systems for utility interconnected applications. In 1998, Bill established a program in California that has trained over 7,000 inspectors, electricians and installers. He has written several technical manuals for the PV industry that are now widely used in California and beyond. His experience includes work on the technical review committees for the National Electrical Code on photovoltaics and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) for utility interconnection standards.
 

—David Brearley, technical editor for Solar Pro, interviewed Bill over the phone recently, catching up with him on the East Coast where he was leading a PV training.

DB: What is the demand for training like these days? Are you teaching more and more classes to more and more people every year?
BB: I do a tremendous amount of teaching. My goal is not to teach entrylevel people, although I do that. There are quite a few other companies out there that provide really good entrylevel training, like the Solar Living Institute. Solar Energy International does a lot of training around the country, and trainings are springing up at community colleges.

I am not trying to compete with those classes. Instead, I am looking at where we need more information in our industry. I think that is on the design side of things. A lot of poor design exists in the industry. On the large scale, if you make mistakes you do the wrong thing more often. So learning to do things right can have a bigger impact on a 1 MW plant. There is a huge need to train contractors and designers - trying to prevent people from reinventing the wheel, from making the same mistakes that have been made for years, and getting people off on the right foot.

DB: Are you doing any training that reaches out to the conventional electrical trades, like for the IBEW or the National Joint Apprentice and Training Committee (NJATC)?
BB: I worked with NJATC training centers in California, back in 2002. The California Energy Commission was able to get them to host a series of 30 or 40 trainings around the state. I have also done a variety of trainings with the IBEW, both on the national level and on the local level. There is no question that they are going to be a major player in the PV industry in the future. They have to be, quite frankly. We do not have enough trained people—certainly not in the PV industry. As the industry grows, it has to attract people from the more mainstream trades: the electrical trades, the roofing trades, the glazing trades and all the rest. To think otherwise is naïve. And it is a good thing. It means we have arrived, that we are not an industry on the fringe.

DB: You also see more professional engineers entering the industry today. You were ahead of that curve. How did you get started in the solar industry living in North Carolina?
BB: What got me interested in the energy field was growing up in the ’70s with the oil embargo. I remember gas lines when I was a kid. A lot of people went to burning wood, my family included. It made me energy conscious. Then, in my senior year at NC State University, I took a solar class. When I went into graduate school, I ended up working with that instructor. It just so happened that he was starting the North Carolina Solar Center with, interesting enough, oil overcharge funds. So in 1988, after the settlements came through, I was one of the founding staff members of the North Carolina Solar Center. I worked there for 10 years.

DB: How did that lead to codes and standards work?
BB: I was trying to do my graduate project with a PV system. I knew the utility had a grid-connected PV system that they had been testing for years. I also knew they were done with their testing. So I recommended that they donate the system to the university. They thought that was a good idea and agreed. I then went through the process of designing a system to go on the solar energy house at North Carolina State University. We dismantled the system, brought it over to the university and went to connect it to the utility grid. That is when the utility basically said, "Oh no, we don’t know enough about that system to let you connect it to the grid."

That opened my eyes to the fact that utility companies were not necessarily honest about their opposition to solar. That started my career working on utility interconnection issues. Over the course of the next 10 years or so, I was heavily involved in the development and establishment of the test requirements for PV systems and inverters. That meant getting down to the nittygritty of what the actual issues were and resolving those issues with the utility companies, getting past all the rhetoric. My strategy has been if you have a technical issue, let’s talk about it and deal with it.

That strategy has been pretty effective over the years. I helped develop the interconnection standards for the State of New York, which then had a fairly large influence on the IEEE standards for inverters. Then, in California, a working group was established for developing interconnection standards for all distributed generators, called Rule 21. I was in the right place at the right time and became the technical facilitator for that group. This included PV, of course, but many other types of generators as well.

Outside the interconnection arena, much of my career has been spent looking at what I call "implementation issues." If the money side of a PV project makes sense for whatever reason—whether it’s through tax incentives, rebates, whatever—then what is preventing the project from actually being done?

The utility side of things was such a huge barrier 20 years ago, it was ridiculous to even think about doing PV. A 2 kW system might cost you $30,000 in engineering studies and take 3 years to complete the reviews. Obviously that was a fiasco. Even if the system was free, it still was not worth doing the project.

DB: I’m curious, were there actually early inverter failures that the utilities could point to? Why was there so much resistance on the part of utilities?
BB: We are talking about gridconnected inverters. At that time, there were maybe 30 to 50 inverters. It was a statistically irrelevant number. You could not make the argument, "We have 50 grid-connected inverters out there, and we have never had a problem with any of them." The response would be, "Well, okay. Call me back when you have 100,000."

When you say you have a 4 kW generator, the instant understanding that you create in the mind of a utility person is somebody with a gas generator hooking up to the grid. There are numerous cases of linemen injured and killed from those things. So the resistance had nothing to do with PV systems. It had to do with the perception of small generators. That is the utility’s frame of reference. Once you understand that frame of reference, you can go from there to what is different about PV inverters. You go through all the details of inverter testing and protection and safety.

Ultimately, success came from winning the hearts and minds of protection engineers who were influential. Those people became the ones who carried the water to their colleagues. You know, today we are in that 100,000 range, and we are still doing well. That means we did a good job at the beginning.

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Blake Jones is the president of Namasté Solar, a Boulder, Colorado based PV systems integrator. Blake cofounded Namasté Solar in early 2005, implementing a unique business plan that emphasizes conscientious business practices, holistic wealth and employee ownership. Four years later, Namasté has grown from three to 55 co-owners; it is a market leader in Colorado, with a portfolio of more than 750 projects totaling more than 4 MW. On February 17, 2009, Blake introduced President Barack Obama at the signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in Denver.

SolarPro Senior Technical Editor David Brearley reached Blake by phone to learn more about Namasté Solar and its recipe for success.

DB: What are the market conditions in Colorado that have enabled Namasté Solar to grow from three employees in 2005 to 55 employees 4 years later?
BJ: Our grid-connected PV market got started with the passage of [Colorado’s] Amendment 37 in November 2004. At the time, it was the 19th or 20th state RES [renewable energy standard] or RPS [renewable portfolio standard] to pass. It was significant because it was the first one passed by voters, as opposed to state legislature. At the time, the RES was 10% by 2015 and had a solar carve-out, mandating that 4% of that 10% come from solar. Of that 4%, half has to come from customer-sited or distributed solar.

That provided the foundation for the market to explode. It took about a year and a half before the law was interpreted, so it wasn’t until March 2006 that the first incentive program was launched. Since then, the state legislature has doubled the RES to 20% by 2020, with the 4% solar carve-out intact. Of course, the RES doesn’t apply to all utilities in the state. It mainly applies to the investor owned utilities, of which there are two that cover 60% to 70% of the state population. About 18 MW were installed in Colorado in 2008, making it the third largest market for PV in the US.

DB: What are the biggest challenges to continued market growth in Colorado?
BJ: One of the biggest challenges that we face in the solar industry is dependence on policy. It’s very difficult to plan a business in an uncertain, short-term policy environment. While everyone in the industry shares that concern, here in Colorado we don’t have a good long-term outlook like California does. The CSI [California Solar Initiative] program is fantastic because it has a long-term outlook. The funding is secured; you know exactly how rebate levels will be reduced based on certain volumes. We don’t have that certainty in Colorado.

The problem we face is that Colorado is ahead of schedule in complying with its RES. Xcel Energy, the main utility, is planning on scaling back its incentive program. So while Colorado currently enjoys leadership status in the PV market, we’re facing a market cliff. We need to enact new policy to extend our market outlook well beyond this year and to retain our leadership position.

DB: That’s a significant task. How has Namasté Solar decided to allocate resources in order to meet that challenge?
BJ: Great question. Some companies put their head in the sand and hope somebody else deals with the problem. Other companies step up to the plate and say, “Hey, I want to be involved. I want to help shape the market that feeds us.”

We’re a company in that latter category. We’ve always had a full-time person dedicated to policy issues. We’re very actively involved in CoSEIA [Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association]. I was on its board for 3 years, and now one of my fellow co-owners, Eriks Brolis, is on the board. We think that involvement is imperative. It’s not just for the benefit of the market; it’s also a benefit to the company. When you’re involved, you have a better idea of what’s going on in the policy landscape. Getting that real-time information helps you make more informed decisions about planning, about risk management and about what to do. For a solar company to have no idea what’s happening in the policy environment is like flying blind.

From a short-term perspective, dedicating somebody full-time to policy costs money. But over the long run, it has a positive benefit. When you’re actively involved, you get to meet movers and shakers in the industry. You have a great chance for people to get to know you, the caliber of your character and the great work you do. Our involvement in policy may have contributed to our being noticed by the Obama administration, resulting in our presence at the stimulus bill–signing event.

DB: That was a proud moment for the industry, and a lot of people, including myself, were deeply moved by your speech. Thank you for representing the industry so well.
BJ: It was a tremendous honor to represent all green industries. Of course, it was fantastic that Obama chose a solar company. He could have chosen any company in the green industries, but he chose a solar company, and we took the responsibility very seriously.

It was an amazing moment for the solar industry. It really energized Colorado, and it put pressure on the state—in a good way—to do more for renewable energy markets. The President also toured our installation at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

DB: Namasté Solar is headquartered in Boulder, but has a branch office in Denver. Other business owners in the PV industry must wrestle with when and how to open a satellite office. How did you make the decision to open a Denver office? Do you have other offices?
BJ: No, we’re just in Boulder and Denver right now. When a PV integrator should open a branch office is a tough decision. We have a relatively easy situation because Boulder and Denver are very close to each other.

From the start, even though our first brick and mortar location was in Boulder, we were doing a lot of business in Denver. We also have a lot of people who live in Denver. We want their commutes to be as short as possible. We want the emissions from their transportation to be as low as possible. We want to improve their quality of life by having a place that’s near their home. We’ve had the Denver office for two years now and it makes good sense for us.

If people live in Denver but work out of a Boulder office, they’re not able to participate in the local community as well as they might otherwise. We take community participation very seriously, which is why we love to have offices that are centrally located. It’s tempting to get an office outside the city in industrial areas where you have cheaper warehouse and office space. But we would rather pay more in order to be centrally located.

This is a great example of how we measure profit holistically. We think paying more for rent actually contributes to a bigger bottom line. It’s easier for customers to come see us; it’s easier for us to commute by bicycle and by bus. We’re happier because our commutes are shorter and because there are better places to go to lunch. It’s just easier to interact with the community.

DB: What about interaction between offices? Were there technological and procedural hurdles involved with starting up a branch office?
BJ: Definitely. You need to work out a lot of communication issues. It’s easy to have a meeting when everybody’s in the same office; it’s harder when you have branch offices. There are phone issues to resolve. There are IT issues. You may need to change your accounting software to allow for multiple warehouses, for example.

We’re lucky that we got to open a branch office located so close to our first office. It’s like an office with training wheels. We’re still able to have all-company meetings; people only have to drive 30 or 45 minutes, and they can all carpool. We think that opening an office in another state would be easier for us now, but I can also see how that would be significantly more challenging.

DB: Since Namasté Solar is a 100% employee-owned business and you make major decisions based on consensus, I’m curious what health care plan you arrived at as a group. Health insurance is a major expense for small businesses, but it’s also an important benefit for employees. When 55 co-owners weigh the benefits and the costs, what does the plan look like?
BJ: With any contractor business, one of the biggest expenses is compensation and that includes health insurance. At Namasté, we get a choice between a health savings account and a preferred provider organization. Everybody can find the right health insurance plan to meet their family’s needs.

In general, what you get with our decentralized ownership structure—we don’t really have some people with more control than others—is you get everybody thinking and acting like owners. We all take ownership for the policies, for the decisions, for the quality of work that we do. Small-business challenges can be exacerbated by really fast growth. We’ve had our share of growing pains, but I think we’ve been able to tackle them better because everybody at our company is thinking and acting like an owner. We benefit from 55 unique perspectives to find the optimal solution. Compared to a contractor that is one sole proprietor and 54 employees, we have 55 times the entrepreneurial energy. That resource has allowed us to come up with some amazing solutions to small-business challenges.

DB: What percentage of Namasté Solar’s installed PV capacity is commercial versus residential? Have you identified one of these particular markets as your dominant growth vehicle?
BJ: We want the balanced approach. It is interesting to see models out there of companies just focusing on commercial or just focusing on residential. We really like focusing on both. We’re not focusing on multi-megawatt, utility scale solar installations. We’re really focusing on DG or customer-sited solar.

Part of our reasoning for the balanced approach is diversification. You’ve seen incentives favor commercial projects, both at the federal and state levels. At other times you’ve seen projects or even the economy favor residential. Another part of it is logistics, planning. When you have a few big commercial projects, there’s a spike in person-power requirements. If you’re doing only commercial projects, I think it would be very, very difficult to mobilize and demobilize people. You’d have to schedule projects so they’re back to back to back. If you have residential projects, you can salt-and-pepper them in between big commercial projects.

Right now I think we’re balanced, approximately half residential and half commercial. Back last October or November, commercial projects were dead in the water because they were hardest hit by the capital markets being frozen, whereas our residential projects were still going full steam ahead. The state incentive program has also favored one or the other from time to time. So it’s hard to have a strategy that focuses on commercial or residential when things are so dynamic. You have to be adaptable to changing market conditions and policy environments.

DB: Looking at your Web site, I noticed that co-founder Ray Tuomey has an extensive marketing background. How has that helped Namasté Solar grow and succeed in a very competitive market?
BJ: Ray has a long background in our community; he knows everyone. You go out to lunch with Ray, chances are there will be four or five people who go, “Hey, Ray, how you doing?” You can’t underestimate the value of someone like Ray who’s a good networker, who’s been doing business in your market and your community for a long period of time, who really understands relationship building.

Plus, Ray understood marketing and PR better than I did. Advice given to someone starting a company is to partner with people who have complementary strengths and weaknesses. That was definitely the case in our situation.

DB: Are there marketing and PR strategies that seem to work the best for you? Does Namasté Solar dedicate a lot of resources to marketing and PR?
BJ: We don’t. We do things a little bit differently than most solar companies. Our conventional advertising and promotional budgets are really small. We prefer to promote ourselves via our co-owners. We love attending fairs and festivals, for example, as most solar companies do. But that’s not the only place where we get to interact with the community. We spend thousands of hours doing educational outreach for free each year. We actually have a full-time position dedicated to community and educational outreach.

We also have an innovative grant program. We donate 1% of our revenues in the form of solar systems to community nonprofits. Instead of giving them $5,000 or $10,000 that will help them this year, we’re giving them a solar system that will decrease their operating budget by thousands of dollars every year, for the next 30 years or more.

This does multiple things. Not only does it increase awareness about solar; not only does it free up important resources for the nonprofits so they can accomplish their missions; but it’s also a way for the constituents, members or supporters of the nonprofit to learn about our company. Many companies have corporate responsibility programs or give charitable donations as a way of getting their name out in a positive way. We’ve definitely found in some ways our grant program can double as a form of advertising and promotion. Although that’s not the primary intention, it ends up being one of the fringe benefits. We would rather give 1% of our revenue away in the form of solar systems for community nonprofits, with that advertising benefit on the side, than spend 1% straight up on conventional advertising.

Rather than increasing our advertising budget, we emphasize quality installations and customer satisfaction. Both activities can increase leads and sales. But we prefer the better quality, better customer service route. We think referral leads are better than advertising leads; the sales conversion rates are better.

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