In-House versus Outsourced Engineering Services
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The US solar market is far from monolithic. If you look at the top 10 states for solar, California’s installed capacity is roughly equal to the combined capacity of the next nine states. At the other end of the spectrum, you have states like North Dakota and South Dakota, which have less than a megawatt of solar capacity combined, that barely register as emerging markets. This market diversity calls for diverse business models.
Given this situation, it is no surprise that solar companies take different approaches to engineering services. For this article, I reached out to engineering service providers, small and large, as well as some solar installation companies, to better understand the pros and cons of outsourcing engineering services versus developing these capacities in-house.
Director of Innovation and Technical Excellence
Sun Light & Power
Sun Light & Power (sunlightandpower.com) designs, builds and maintains commercial PV and solar thermal systems. The company has installed more than 4,000 solar systems since 1976, focusing on the greater San Francisco Bay Area and covering all of California. Market sectors served include solar for businesses, government agencies, hotels, multifamily housing, nonprofits, schools and universities, and spiritual centers.
SP: How does Sun Light & Power meet the company's engineering needs?
BG: We have five California-licensed PEs on staff and one more literally across the hall. In addition, we have several full-time solar designers. With this group, we are able to design and engineer almost all our projects. Within our service territory, requirements for PE certification vary significantly among AHJs and customers. Some AHJs require every sheet in a plan set to have a PE seal; many require a structural engineer’s seal on the structural sheets only; a few require an electrical or mechanical engineer’s seal on the electrical (PV) or mechanical (solar thermal) sheets. A few AHJs require PE seals for projects larger than a given threshold. In addition, certain customers may have requirements for PE certification, most often for projects subject to an RFP process or projects for PPA developers and financiers. Public projects often have specifications or other contract language requiring PE certification. Our current standard is to provide structural PE certification on most permit drawing sets, whether required or not. They would be required by one entity or another 80% of the time.
SP: Has Sun Light & Power always had in-house engineering capabilities?
BG: Having the engineering expertise in-house has been a key part of our business model for more than 40 years. Our founder, Gary Gerber, is a licensed mechanical engineer. When Gary founded the company in 1976, he not only was an industry pioneer but also designed solar thermal systems in-house. When grid-tied PV started to be a serious part of the business 15–20 years ago, we were building a lot of residential systems and had an in-house designer with an architecture background doing CAD work for permit drawings. At that time, PE certification was not required. As we started moving toward more commercial work around 2004, we hired a PE and officially launched our engineering department. For many years following, we outsourced structural engineering when necessary, until we hired our own in-house structural engineer.
SP: Does having your own in-house engineering department provide Sun Light & Power with a competitive advantage in the market?
BG: Yes, starting precontract, during project development and estimating, we benefit from in-house design and engineering expertise. We call our salespeople “design consultants” because they really do help identify the best solution for the customer. Our top salespeople individually have more than 15 years of solar experience. If they need help optimizing or identifying a custom solution, they can call on a senior engineer during the sales phase. Further, with in-house engineering, we are better able to adapt to field conditions, serve our installation crews, improve our designs based on knowledge gained from our specific field experience, and do the custom, often iterative work our customers demand.
SP: Are there any scenarios where you outsource engineering services?
BG: On some projects, we do. When our in-house engineering team is overloaded, we use outsourcing as a pressure relief valve. We do not currently have an electrical engineer on staff, so for the rare occasion when an AHJ or contract specifically requires a professional electrical engineer, we outsource that part. We sometimes use third-party structural engineers for carports and ballasted systems, especially where the manufacturer or supplier has worked closely with a particular engineer in the past. Finally, when we need an engineer with expertise in a particularly challenging AHJ—such as Los Angeles—we sometimes outsource engineering on complicated or leading-edge projects.
SP: Does Sun Light & Power ever hire design service providers that are not licensed professional engineers?
BG: On occasion, we take on small projects for certain VIP customers. Our internal process is optimized for larger projects and our capacity is limited. If we take on a residential project that doesn’t require PE certification, we may outsource the permit package to a solar design service. The ones we work with have very quick turnaround times and can provide permit drawings for a very low cost.
Founder and Principal
Hamon Engineering (hamonengineering.com) is a small professional engineering practice in the San Francisco Bay Area that provides engineering and consulting services. Marvin Hamon is a professional electrical engineer. He has worked in engineering since 1993 and in the PV industry since 2004.
SP: What solar engineering services does Hamon Engineering provide, and who are your typical customers?
MH: We provide a wide range of engineering services including feasibility studies, project design, construction overview, commissioning witnessing, third-party review, owner’s engineering and general consulting. We provide electrical engineering services through in-house resources. Where projects require additional engineering resources, we can provide civil, structural and mechanical engineering by teaming with other professional engineers.
Our client base consists mostly of commercial, industrial and utility-scale PV project developers; PV financiers; commercial architects; large PV contractors; state and municipal governments; equipment manufacturers; other engineering firms; and utilities. Residential or small commercial PV contractors rarely contact us. The larger and more complex the project, the greater the benefit of engaging an engineering team. Our solar contractor clients tend to come to us because a local AHJ requires that a PE prepare the project design, or they want to mitigate risk, or they need our specialized knowledge to complete a project successfully.
SP: What is the benefit or value proposition of outsourcing professional engineering services?
MH: All but the largest design-build construction companies are well served by outsourcing professional engineering services. In fact, even the largest companies will still outsource as a way to spread out project liability. It is difficult to come up with enough year-round work to keep a professional engineer occupied. If there is no engineering work to do one week, you probably can’t just send the engineer out to install PV systems or do sales calls. On top of that, it is expensive to buy errors and omissions insurance, which must be kept in force for years after project completion. Companies don’t realize how much it really costs to run a professional engineering team until they try it, and then the cost of outsourcing seems much more reasonable. By comparison, it is relatively easy to bring PV design services in-house. You can start with a position that splits PV design and sales responsibilities, and work up to a dedicated design team for PV projects that do not require professional engineering. As companies grow, it may eventually make sense to hire an engineer to direct that in-house design team.
SP: At what point in the project development cycle do you prefer to come on board?
MH: It’s best to contact an engineering firm early, ideally as soon as you determine that a project requires PE services. That way you can hand off the engineering scope of work and maximize the benefits of having an engineering team.
The worst time to bring an engineer on board is after the design package is complete. If you are a solar company, you don’t want a DIY customer that offers you $100 to make a utility interconnection. Why would you take responsibility for a system you didn’t install? That’s what it’s like when a solar company brings a completed design package to a PE and asks him or her to stamp that design.
SP: How do design service providers differ from engineering firms? What kind of work is best suited for these different entities?
MH: PV design companies are best at providing residential and small commercial design documents, based on the contractor’s input about what equipment to use and the physical project layout. You should work with PV design companies when you just want a design document to get a permit. If it’s less expensive than having an in-house design employee and you do not mind giving up most of the control of the design, it can be a beneficial arrangement. Keep in mind that unless a PV design company has a licensed engineer, architect or contractor on staff, it cannot offer or provide design documents stamped by a professional engineer in most states, including California.
When you work with an engineering firm, you are teaming with a licensed professional who can provide a wide range of engineering support services. If the project requires an engineering stamp to get a permit or if you feel uncomfortable about your ability to produce a safe and proper design, then you should hire an engineering firm. Typically, bringing in an engineering firm best fits in the budgets of projects above 500 kWdc or particularly complex projects above 100 kWdc.
SP: How do you and your customers approach value-engineering activities? Are there occasions when spending more money on engineering services can reduce costs elsewhere?
MH: First, let’s define value engineering. While many people think value engineering is simply about trimming a project down to meet a budget, project budgeting is its own process. Value engineering is the process of maximizing the ratio of function to cost, which we achieve by increasing functionality or decreasing costs. It’s hard to say beforehand if value-engineering activities will improve a design. But the more complex the project, the greater the likelihood that there are areas that can be improved. The key to value engineering is to employ people who are very experienced in the many ways to design a PV system and to refine designs. These people apply their experience and knowledge to a preliminary design to derive the most value from the project.
SEI Engineering and SEI Professional Services
SEI Engineering (SEIE) and SEI Professional Services (SEIPS) (seisolarpros.com) are extensions of Solar Energy International (SEI), which has a long and well-respected heritage as the leading technical training provider for the solar industry. Founded in 1991, SEI is a nonprofit educational organization headquartered in Paonia, Colorado. SEIPS and SEIE are separate legal entities, founded in 2015 and 2016, respectively, that collectively support SEI’s mission and offer formal design, consulting and field services across the globe.
SP: What types of solar design and engineering services do SEIE and SEIPS provide, and what types of clients do you serve?
KH: We have a unique business model in that our team of solar professionals is primarily comprised of the deep pool of instructors from SEI’s technical training team. We leverage the expertise of this cadre of approximately 60 instructors to meet our client’s needs for highly technical consulting services. We have six employees at the core of our business operations who oversee projects and administrative tasks and participate in day-to-day design and consulting processes on various projects. Our engineering and professional services teams provide expert consulting services during every stage of the solar project development life cycle, from concept to commissioning through O&M services. Our consulting and design services include in-house licensed electrical, civil and structural engineers. As follow-up services, we offer QA [quality assurance] inspections during construction, performance testing and commissioning. We also offer ongoing evaluation services of existing systems and troubleshooting of any kind.
We serve a wide spectrum of the solar industry, from residential installers to large developers who simply do not want to invest in an internal engineering department. The bulk of our engineering customers are developers of medium-size commercial and utility-scale PV systems. Our clients include utilities breaking into the solar marketplace, EPC firms that need to quickly outsource their engineering and developers who find it easier to use our expertise than to develop their capabilities internally. Some of our clients already have an engineering department within their ranks. They enjoy being able to use our services for QA design reviews or for full package designs rather than having to ramp staffing up and down to meet changing workloads.
SP: What types of solar companies benefit most from outsourcing design and engineering services?
KH: The types of solar companies that benefit most from our expertise are developers, financiers, EPCs and even smaller individual solar installers who need specific help making sure their systems are designed and installed correctly. The value of outsourcing is different depending on the needs of your business or the specific project on which you are working. If you are a project financier, you may need a company that can perform system design reviews and act as an independent engineer who performs a broad range of due diligence tasks to make sure your investment meets expectations. If you are a developer who will hire an EPC firm to build the project, you may realize that taking the E out of EPC and bringing the engineering more under your control makes sense from both a quality control and a financial perspective. In some cases, our clients choose to have us develop the design 90% of the way with the developer, and then they finish the design with the installing contractor to accommodate its input.
If you are a growing EPC firm, you may not have the resources or time to devote to developing an engineering staff. Or maybe you have an engineering staff but would prefer to use outside engineers to complement their capabilities rather than increase your overhead. Outsourcing engineering services is also a way to avoid the cost of carrying professional liability insurance.
SP: What should solar companies look for when selecting an engineering services provider?
KH: Make sure the company carries professional liability coverage and ask if any claims are currently outstanding. If a company carries $1 million of aggregate liability coverage and has three claims open, the value of those systems could take up most of that $1 million. In that case, you might want to step back and look elsewhere. Engineering services providers need to carry the right level of insurance based on the volume of work that they do. There is also value to using a multidisciplinary engineering firm that can coordinate all aspects of a project design—electrical, civil, structural and environmental—as this results in a more efficient system and design process.
SP: How do you and your customers approach value-engineering activities?
KH: Most of our plan reviews result in design changes to ensure safer and higher-quality installations. If we have an opportunity to perform an initial design review, we let our clients know if we see specific areas we think will benefit from a design change. At that point, the client can make a decision as to whether it wants to take the next step with our design team. So much depends on the type of client and the timing of the project. If it is an EPC who must deliver its project very quickly, chances are it isn’t going to stall the process to make major design changes. On the other hand, we may be able to identify a lot of minor changes that will help save money across the board.
SP: Do you have any advice for solar companies that want to develop an in-house engineering department?
KH: Make design quality a top priority. This will save you money in the long term. The solar industry is growing at a rapid pace, which can make it challenging to maintain quality control. It makes sense to bring engineering services in-house only if you can save money without sacrificing quality. To add an in-house engineering team, you need to have not only bandwidth to manage this new department but also an appetite for accepting additional liability.
Senior Vice President, Engineering
Blue Oak Energy
Blue Oak Energy (blueoakenergy.com) started as a PV system design company and evolved to become a professional engineering firm to meet the needs of large commercial, industrial and utility-scale projects. Based in Davis, California, the company currently has a team of 25 engineers and designers with in-house civil, electrical and structural professional engineers licensed in 26 states. The company typically helps deliver 350 MW–400 MW per year across 50–70 distinct clients.
SP: What types of solar engineering services does Blue Oak Energy provide in-house?
DL: We provide a broad range of services to support clients from development through permitting, construction and start-up.
At the development stage, we provide preliminary engineering for site selection and optimization. We specialize in civil assessments to address land development challenges and project constructability. This naturally leads to engineering support for environmental impact assessments, discretionary permits and other early-stage agency reviews. At the nondiscretionary permit stage, our engineering team delivers full permit packages. On the civil side, our team provides all site improvement plans, which may include hydrology studies, cut-and-fill plans, erosion and SWPP [storm-water pollution prevention] plans, and all the ancillary civil sheets, reports and exhibits. On the electrical side, we generate electrical site plans, wire and conduit schedules, construction details and all the supplementary studies. We also help our clients through the permitting process. At the construction stage, our team performs a variety of services including submittal review, responding to requests for information and in some cases on-site verification. Finally, we support the client in completing as-built or record drawings.
We see that land development and civil engineering have tremendous bearing on project success and timelines. In fact, civil engineering for off-site improvements could be more involved than the scope of work within the fence. Similarly, medium-voltage feeder, collection system and interconnection design have equal weight in the overall engineering scope of work. Further, industrial and utility-scale projects require coordination between a broad range of project stakeholders: developers, owners, construction managers, equipment vendors, plan checkers, the utility companies and other consultants. Blue Oak Energy is often contracted to be the engineer of record, the overarching firm that ties all the pieces together for the customer.
SP: What kinds of companies come to Blue Oak Energy for solar engineering services?
DL: Our client base includes developers, asset owners, equipment manufacturers, public agencies, construction firms and even other engineering firms. The two main categories of solar companies we do work for are solar developers and solar construction firms. The developers may be pure-play developers or independent power producers. For this group, we mainly provide development support on any engineering scope they do not have in-house; this is by and large civil land development, civil engineering, single lines and energy modeling. Solar construction firms typically have some engineering capabilities in-house but look to us for overflow or region-specific work. The construction firms typically have very specific requirements; they may have a preliminary design completed, all procurement worked out and detailed specifications down to drawing format. We provide them with site-specific engineering and calculations, as well as permitting and construction support.
SP: In what ways does Blue Oak Energy add value for its solar company clients?
DL: The value proposition for using a third-party provider is to stay lean on cash flow by paying for engineering only when you actually need it. Based on a couple recent conversations, the main reasons solar companies outsource engineering services to us is to smooth the peaks and valleys associated with getting a notice to proceed. It can take months, or even years, to officially kick off a project, whether the delay comes from getting a PPA inked or completing a utility-mandated supplemental review. An idle engineering team on your payroll that’s not billable will simply burn through cash. By outsourcing, you pay based on the work product rather than based on head count, as measured in salary plus benefits. Solar companies can also break the scope of work into smaller parts. We are often released to generate 30% design packages or bid sets to help finalize construction costs. We put our pencils down while the developer or owner figures out its procurement and execution plan, at which point we get a secondary NTP [notice to proceed] to generate permit documents.
SP: What advice do you have for solar companies that are weighing the pros and cons of offering engineering services in-house?
DL: In-house engineering capabilities are a good way for companies that primarily work on residential through medium-size commercial projects to coordinate the design work with sales, procurement, construction, and operations and maintenance. On projects of this scale, outsourcing the engineering can take more effort than simply doing the work in-house, especially if all the projects are within the same state or region. A lead engineer and several designers can support a good volume of work. The same team can support sales and do the detailed design.
Principal and Founder
Mayfield Renewables (mayfield.energy) is a small design firm based in Corvalis, Oregon, with five full-time and three part-time staff. Founded in 2007 as Renewable Energy Associates, the company offers design services for PV systems ranging in scale from residential to large commercial and small utility applications. The majority of its projects are located in the Western half of the US, primarily on the West Coast and in Hawaii. In 2017, the company worked on more than 200 residential and 150 commercial PV systems.
SP: What types of professional services does Mayfield Renewables provide, and who are your typical customers?
RM: Our firm offers services that include project feasibility studies, utility interconnection applications, preliminary system design, and complete plan sets for permitting and construction. For large projects that require it, we manage requests for information and construction administration tasks, such as verifying and approving system components. We also offer consulting services for manufacturers that need technical assistance when bringing new products to market or supporting their customers. On the design side, we work closely with engineering firms that are able to oversee our work and perform their own designs as required to provide clients with engineered stamped drawings.
Traditional solar companies make up a majority of our client base. Over the last 2 or 3 years, we have seen an increase in the number of electrical contractors approaching us for PV system design assistance. These companies have extensive knowledge in the electrical contracting world but sometimes no solar experience at all. For these clients, our knowledge and expertise in PV can help them avoid mistakes and problems that they would not have foreseen. In these cases, a fair amount of education goes into the first few deliverables until they get the hang of the process.
SP: Based on your interactions with solar company clients, what are the benefits of outsourcing design or engineering services?
RM: Many of our clients are contractors who don’t have the time or resources to build an in-house team to create drawing packages. This type of customer often has a relatively small staff and is focused on installations. By having our team help them with the drawing sets, these contractors can focus on the other aspects of making their company successful, such as sales and installation. We have worked with a lot of different jurisdictions, and the knowledge we have gained in the process helps these companies streamline their permit approval process.
We also work with many companies, including established solar contractors, that have the ability to generate designs and drawing packages in-house but need help managing an overwhelming workload. Some of these companies hire us to manage short-term overflows. A few companies use us to provide design services on an ongoing basis, because the process works so well for them. The ability to regularly hand off projects helps maintain throughput quality by keeping their internal teams from getting overloaded. Companies that establish long-term relationships with us tend to derive the most value, as the first job or two require extra work from both parties to smooth out processes.
SP: What kind of work best suits a PV design company as opposed to an engineering services provider?
RM: Residential projects generally do not need an engineering stamp. But some jurisdictions have very prescriptive permit plan set requirements. PV design companies specialize in providing residential permit packages that meet these types of AHJ requirements. A lot of clients work with us because of our direct experience and expertise in the PV field. Engineering firms have even hired us because they recognized their need for specialized help with PV system design and specification. We also have established relationships with engineering firms across multiple disciplines that can directly oversee our work and create their own engineered designs and documents as required by individual AHJs. This relationship can work well for PV contractors who do not want to manage multiple providers to procure fully engineered deliverables.
SP: Does Mayfield Renewables help customers with design optimization activities?
RM: Yes, we do. If customers engage us during the initial project kickoff, we can help them optimize designs by making equipment or layout recommendations. The company’s internal construction practices have a lot to do with this process. For example, does the company have a prescribed maximum voltage drop percentage? Is that number different on the dc and ac side of the inverter? Does the company have a maximum conductor size it will use before moving to parallel sets of conductors? Knowing these different criteria and correctly applying them helps save time and resources across the whole project.
As the design progresses, we often see a way that the contractor may be able to save field time. We then relay that information to the project managers to see if that solution makes sense for the installation crew. Value engineering can look great on paper, but if it is impractical in the field or creates more problems than it solves, it isn’t worth it. That’s why we include the project managers in these decisions.
Co-Founder and Managing Partner
ReVision Energy (revisionenergy.com) is a full-service solar company serving both residential and commercial customers in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The company has designed and installed more than 7,000 solar energy systems over the past 10 years. Its in-house engineering team includes four licensed professional engineers, supported by four system designers.
SP: Has ReVision Energy always offered in-house engineering services or did you develop these capabilities over time?
FM: We have always performed most engineering services in-house. As our business grew, we started using outside engineering services for most of the structural engineering work. We also outsource land surveying and civil engineering work for large commercial projects where those services are required. But we still do all the overall design, system modeling, drafting and electrical engineering work in-house. All of our commercial projects require a PE-stamped electrical one-line diagram for utility interconnection. In addition, roughly 50% of our total projects, both residential and commercial, require a structural PE to sign off when the solar system is mounted on an existing structure.
SP: Does having in-house engineering staff provide your company with a competitive advantage in the market?
FM: Our strongest value proposition is to be able to offer robust cost-effective systems through the design-build model. Having an integrated engineering and estimating team has allowed us to design these systems while providing the best value to our clients. Having design and engineering staff is a critical part of serving our customers effectively. It allows us to have our design team work tightly with the project development and sales team to iterate rapidly to identify the projects that best meet the needs of our clients. This is particularly important in the small commercial and industrial market, where project development budgets won’t support an inefficient or cumbersome process. Project optimization is a highly project-specific exercise and requires not only a solid understanding of the client’s specific goals, but also an understanding of utility tariffs, incentive programs and net metering rules, as well as local permitting issues. We find that our in-house engineering team is uniquely equipped to solve this multidimensional optimization question on behalf of our customers.
SP: Does strategic outsourcing benefit your business in any way?
FM: Structural reviews are sometimes required to add rooftop solar to existing buildings. We have found that our outside structural engineering partners perform this review quickly and cost-effectively across our whole geographic territory, in a way that we’d struggle to do in-house. Hiring out the structural engineering scope is a pretty straightforward delineation of responsibility and has proven effective for us to date. When developing large ground-mounted projects or those projects involving brownfield sites, some civil or environmental engineering scope often falls outside our core in-house competency. We typically work with outside engineering partners in those cases. This work can include survey work, storm-water runoff plans, road building and erosion control, as well as other specific requirements related to local, state and environmental permitting. We are lucky to have an excellent collaborative relationship with many engineering firms in our area. We often find that partnering with a firm that has an existing relationship with the client or knowledge of a site can be an efficient and cost-effective way to work.
SP: Do you hold engineering licenses in more than one state? What criteria do you consider when deciding whether to add another state license?
FM: We carry in-house licenses for both engineering and installation in our core geographic service territories. Adding a license for a new state can be a bit tedious but is not all that expensive. If we’re planning to do a significant volume of work in a new territory, it usually makes sense to go through the effort to get a license through reciprocity or comity. However, when we take on work that falls outside our core service territory, we typically rely on a third party for that licensure. In those cases, we still try to maintain a significant portion of the design process to capture the benefits of doing this work in-house. But we partner with a third party to review the work thoroughly and provide the needed certifications for the particular jurisdiction.
SepiSolar (sepisolar.com) is a turnkey system design and engineering firm, based in Fremont, California, that specializes in solar PV, energy storage and microgrids. As of January 2018, SepiSolar has designed more than 3,500 residential projects, 1,000 commercial projects and 200 energy storage projects. The company employs licensed civil, structural and electrical engineering professionals and is able to stamp projects in 49 states.
SP: Who are your typical customers, and what types of professional services does SepiSolar provide?
JW: We serve three major customer groups: small- to medium-size independent developers and EPC firms, solar EPCs or developers, and nonsolar developers. The first group consists primarily of companies with core competencies that lie somewhere outside solar design. They may have a compelling financing structure, sales skills or installation expertise but a knowledge gap on the design or engineering side of the business. SepiSolar fills that gap. The second group includes medium- to large-size companies, vertically integrated or not, with solar expertise. These companies are looking for an engineering-as-a-service provider that can support peak demand periods and accommodate the busier seasons. SepiSolar provides a quick, adaptable and flexible service that these companies can turn on or off without sacrificing quality or expending management resources. The third group includes architects, general contractors, governments or public entities, and financiers or owners who do not know much about solar at all. For instance, SepiSolar is working with the lead architect on the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum, which is a multi-decade project with incredible complexity in building design, LEED certification and net-zero requirements. The name of the game here is to manage complexity on behalf of our customer to make the solar integration process as simple as possible.
SP: What is the value proposition of outsourcing design and engineering services to a third-party provider?
JW: The value proposition is gaining a vantage point that the customer wouldn’t otherwise have to navigate, maneuver and dodge the various technical obstacles that sometimes prevent the development of a particular solar project from moving forward. These requirements and many others vary and are often technical in nature, and they frequently cause added costs and delayed project timelines. Whether it’s a 1 kW or a 1 MW project, there are so many requirements that come into play. Our job is to master these requirements and leverage that experience for the benefit of our customers.
SP: Do any of your customers try to transition away from outsourcing their engineering needs and develop in-house engineering capabilities?
JW: Some customers have asked us if we can assist with the first project or two until they can get up to speed and can bring design and engineering in-house. This is completely fine by us because one of three things tend to happen. One, customers occasionally learn what they need to from us and go on to become industry leaders, in which case we take pride in helping them grow from zero to hero. Two, more frequently, customers fall in love with our quality of service and work us into their business model. Three, the customer never quite develops all the capabilities that we have, in which case it may take over a portion of the work but continue to use us to perform other portions of the work or provide design review services to ensure quality control.
Project Manager and Owner
Founded in 2010, Sunbridge Solar (sunbridgesolar.com) serves the Portland, Oregon, metro area market, as well as Vancouver, Washington. The company has 10 employees. Its project portfolio is roughly 70% residential and 30% commercial.
SP: How does Sunbridge Solar meet its design and engineering needs?
JW: We perform basic technical drafting and electrical design activities in-house. These capabilities are sufficient for any residential or commercial PV projects in Oregon or Washington that conform to the checklist for prescriptive PV installations. These jurisdictions have policies in place that expedite permitting for standard projects, meaning conventional light-frame construction with appropriately spaced rafters or trusses. Projects that fall outside these criteria are nonprescriptive installations that require stamped engineering plans. About 30% of our projects are nonprescriptive and require PE-certified plan sets. Commercial projects in Oregon also require that an electrical engineer stamp the electrical drawings. Since it is prohibitively expensive for a small company like ours to have an engineer on staff, we outsource our engineering requirements to a number of firms. But roughly 70% of the time, we are able to permit projects in-house.
SP: To what extent does Sunbridge Solar use technology—such as module-level power electronics or solar design software—to reduce its reliance on design staff or professional engineers?
JW: Very little. Module-level power electronics is more of a selling point for customers than a means of reducing reliance on technical staff. We do utilize solar design software but mainly for generating proposals and production estimates.
SP: Does your company ever work with solar design service providers?
JW: Yes, we utilize solar design service providers for larger commercial projects. As our business transitions from residential to commercial projects, it is helpful to rely on an experienced team of designers to support and collaborate with us. These design service providers are able to conduct on-site visits, draft building and electrical plan sets, advise on the technicalities of interconnection and work with their selected engineer to deliver a final permit. Although this can be costly, it can also greatly reduce the project management time needed to get a commercial project off the ground. For a small business, this time savings can have a huge value. In effect, we are able to install larger projects while minimizing overhead, which has been vital to the growth and success of our business. I think our company would need to employ roughly 50 people before it would make sense to hire an in-house engineer.
David Brearley / SolarPro / Ashland, OR / solarprofessional.com