Amanda Bybee, CEO Amicus O&M Cooperative
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In 2016, a subset of Amicus Solar member companies collaborated to secure a US Department of Energy SunShot Initiative award to launch the new Amicus O&M Cooperative. Their aim was to fill a specific solar industry need: providing streamlined, cost-effective O&M services to ensure that solar PV systems fulfill their performance expectations over the short and long term. Amanda Bybee serves as the CEO of the new cooperative. She has worked in the solar industry since 2003, first promoting renewable energy policy in Austin, Texas, while at Public Citizen, then moving to solar EPC companies. Bybee holds a BA from the University of Texas at Austin, and, through solar, has found her “inner engineer.”
SP: Before becoming the CEO of Amicus O&M Cooperative, you were the director of strategic planning and initiatives at Namasté Solar, a founding member of Amicus Solar Cooperative. How did you set your sights on a solar O&M strategic initiative?
AB: Fundamentally, I believe that solar is one of the key solutions to climate change. For it to be regarded as a reliable technology, it has to deliver on the promise that it will operate for decades to come. A lot of us in the O&M cooperative regard it as our moral obligation as industry professionals to make sure that the technology we install today does what it’s supposed to do.
O&M providers are among the key players that make that happen. In my history of working at EPC companies for the past 14 years, I have always found there to be an interest in diversifying revenue streams. Namasté Solar saw that potential a few years ago, when it first established its O&M department. In talking with some of the other members of the Amicus Solar Cooperative, we hatched this idea of creating a new cooperative that would be dedicated just to that.
In the last 10–15 years, it’s just been this mad race to build new projects, and O&M has not factored as heavily into the equation as it’s starting to. There are opportunities to create new standards, to become a lot more efficient and sophisticated in how we provide O&M services. That’s exciting to me, to be part of the development and to get to apply an entrepreneurial spirit to an underdeveloped part of the industry.
SP: What are the benefits of bringing the cooperative model to solar O&M? What do you think you can leverage from the existing co-op members?
AB: Namasté Solar is a huge proponent of the cooperative model, and it has quite a track record of spinning off new ones. Namasté Solar itself is an employee-owned cooperative. It co-founded Amicus Solar in 2011 as a purchasing cooperative. I’ve spent the last 2.5 years there helping launch a new financial cooperative, the Clean Energy Credit Union. It received its federal charter last September as a dedicated financial institution to provide financing for clean energy products and services. Midway through that, we applied for the award for the Amicus O&M Cooperative. It became my joke at Namasté Solar that whenever we encountered new business problems, our first question was, “Is there a cooperative for that?”
We believe that there’s an inherent benefit in cooperatives with the collaboration that they naturally foster, equal ownership and voting rights, and the shared risk and responsibility for all the owners. It’s just a better way to do business. It levels the playing field so that you have less hierarchical relationships than you have in the traditional subcontractor relationship, which leads to greater respect among companies.
One of our core values is fairness. We apply those core values not only to the members of the cooperative but also with our clients. We want to work with clients who understand that you can’t just push 100% of liability off on other people. Liability exists in this world. And we have to be respectful and responsible in how we apportion it.
SP: What are the benefits to a company in becoming a member of the O&M cooperative?
AB: One of the primary services that the cooperative offers is to create a central infrastructure that allows us to work together and provide coordinated services across the country. So for the last year, we’ve been putting together a library of legal templates that members can use with clients to hopefully cut down on the amount of time it takes to negotiate a contract.
Another big tool is the central software system to track work orders into a ticketing system. Everybody is using a central system that asks the technicians to fill out a common checklist, which captures a common set of information. Then it also generates standardized report templates.
SP: So you’re addressing some of the soft costs and streamlining things for the members.
AB: Exactly. We also emphasize training, because part of the promise of creating this greater level of consistency and standardization is in having all the technicians train to a certain level. We partnered with Solar Energy International in 2017 and trained technicians from all 20 member companies, 45 in all.
Inherent in a cooperative is the sharing of best practices. It’s a way to share experiences and new tools, ideas, marketing concepts and so on. It’s also a way for us to have an internal marketplace for spare parts. That’s a big thorny problem that everybody encounters. What do you do when you can’t find parts to replace the broken ones?
There’s also a lot of potential for workforce sharing. If you’ve got a big job and you’d like to have more technicians than you have on your team, you call your fellow co-op members and see if anybody else has some technicians they can share for a few days. If you’re getting out on a new site, but it’s really closer to someone else, you can work together to provide the services.
The other reason a lot of companies have joined is that the co-op is a potential revenue driver for them. They can be the recipients of work orders. Sales companies can have a reach into new markets.
The last thing is the tool lending libraries. We’ve been able to purchase some tools that members can now borrow and supplement what they already have. We’ve got some higher-end I-V curve tracers and three thermal imaging cameras. Given a few days’ notice, I can ship them wherever member companies need them.
The companies have said that it’s been helpful to have access to tools they themselves don’t currently own that are faster at taking the readings, and that they’ve been able to use them for training others. Lastly, for big commissioning jobs, they’ve been able to do more concurrent testing and reduce time on-site, for greater efficiency overall. Win-win-win.
Really, that is what the cooperative is all about: raising standards and consistency across all of the member companies, and enabling them to do the work more efficiently so that we save time and money.
SP: What’s the value for customers in hiring co-op member companies?
AB: The biggest one is access to a national network of contractors with trained technicians. They also have access to the software, so they can see the information relevant to their sites, their work orders, their upcoming invoices, their reports and so on, with a great deal of consistency.
If you’re an asset owner, and you don’t want to manage a lot of regional contractors, you could work with just one member company that would be your single point of contact. It would handle all the dispatch and management on the back end.
Because we’re trying to fill in the map with member companies from all over the US, there will hopefully be less travel time. You’ll have faster responses to get out and address problems and lower costs as a result.
The level of redundancy in having all the members of the cooperative trained in the same tools allows you to substitute one member company for another if necessary.
SP: What types of clients and market sectors does the Amicus O&M Cooperative serve?
AB: Originally, we thought we’d serve the C&I and small utility–scale marketplace. I’ve had a fairly large number of inquiries about residential fleets, and that’s certainly on the table for the future. Our ideal client manages a geographically diverse project portfolio with systems ranging in capacity from 250 kW–500 kW up to 20 MW–30 MW, and outsources its O&M work. Then the other thing we look for is that our values are aligned.
SP: How sophisticated are your customers about solar O&M requirements?
AB: It’s a pretty broad spectrum, actually. When you talk to professional asset owners and asset managers, they, of course, are very knowledgeable. They have high expectations of the services that we provide. Then there are others who are new to the role and need a lot of education. In some cases, people know exactly what they want, and they hand you the scope of work. In other cases, they say, “What are you gonna do for me?”
It’s been interesting to explore the gaps between the financially minded and the technically minded, because they don’t always understand each other’s perspectives. The financial folks may want something that is not actually reasonable to provide, and the technicians don’t always understand the financial impact of what they’re doing. Being a bridge between those groups is one of the roles that I hope to play. I love the field side of things and have gotten to know the technicians from all of our companies through our trainings, but then I’m also out there talking to the asset owners.
SP: Do you think that industry stakeholders have a good understanding of how to value and budget for long-term solar O&M?
AB: In many cases, no. They may think far enough out to request an O&M contract from a service provider to cover the annual preventive maintenance inspections, but they may not think through the comprehensive costs that come with system ownership (corrective maintenance budget, DAS subscriptions, internet access, security and so on). When asset owners under-budget for O&M, it sets up a chronic tension between them and the O&M provider. There is still more education to do in the marketplace about how to have a realistic budget.
SP: As a for-profit business, the Amicus O&M Cooperative obviously sees a significant business opportunity in providing solar O&M services. How do you manage the balance between healthy competition and cooperation?
AB: One of the things that’s been very interesting is learning about how the cooperative needs to operate with regard to antitrust laws. We are very careful in how we structure ourselves and how we function so that we preserve competition. We pay attention, certainly, to how much overlap and redundancy member companies create in any given geographic region, but we don’t prohibit it. It’s certainly possible that members of the cooperative will compete against each other. This may be one aspect of our practices that gives confidence to the asset owners—that we aren’t complacent in our pricing. Healthy competition keeps us (and our pencils) sharp.
There is so much runway for improvement that we have got to be in this together. And the more we learn, the more we develop, the better we are as an industry. The better we are, the more we are able to provide a better, more efficient service, at a lower cost.
SP: How do you think the recent 30% solar tariff will impact the industry from a solar O&M perspective?
AB: There are a few potential impacts. Currently, the members of the cooperative are all also EPC firms, not just pure-play O&M companies. The same is true for a lot of O&M providers across the country. If they were to see their EPC business affected and were to lay off any kind of field staff, that could potentially mean that they have fewer resources to provide O&M services. Conversely, potentially more companies will see O&M as a safer revenue source. They could choose to get into the business and make it a more crowded marketplace.
The biggest impact of the tariff from my perspective was the uncertainty it introduced. It held up the development of a lot of projects, so all those new O&M contracts went on hold as well.
Now that the tariff is a known quantity, we can get back to business. This space is the solar coaster, and we know how to roll with the punches. We’ve had a lot over the past 15 years. I’m not too concerned about the medium- to long-term view. We will find ways to absorb the tariffs and continue growing.
SP: Is there anything that you are working on now with the O&M co-op that you’re just excited to talk about?
AB: I’m most excited about the opportunity to keep improving this part of the marketplace and to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to it while it is still figuring itself out. It’s fun to have conversations with people about how do you define asset management. What falls into that exactly? When you say “analytics,” what do you really mean? These are terms that people throw around as buzzwords, but there isn’t a common understanding of how we really apply them in practice. I like to break that highfalutin term into really practical chunks.
I’m excited about the software side of things. More companies are providing important services and giving us better visibility into how PV systems are doing or why they’re not performing as well as they should. I spent a lot of my time over the past 8 months developing software to manage, in our case, just really a narrow slice of that pie, which is the work order system. I’m finding ways to do that for my members that are affordable because pricing is still all over the place, both for software services and for O&M. We’re approaching these things creatively and comprehensively, but also affordably. It’s easy to get complicated.
We’re trying to strike a balance and develop tools that are simple enough to be user friendly, but thorough enough to be useful on the back end. A lot of us fall into the trap of gathering so much data that we don’t know what to do with it. How do we find the right balance of information to really be good at what we do and not overwhelm each other with all this unnecessary information that just clutters the space? After 11 years at Namasté Solar, my stock answer to every such question is “It’s a balance.”
If you have so much information, you can do a lot with it. But if you have too much and no one uses it at all, then you’ve shot yourself in the foot. Conversely, if you don’t have enough, then you’re flying blind.
We’re constantly striving for that balance. We want to make sure the technicians are equipped to provide the right level of service. No one size fits all in every situation, so we strive to find the right ways to address that and apply different scopes of work to different-sized systems or different price tags. We want to get this to where we can provide O&M really cost effectively, still keep the systems up and running, and allow our companies to make some money along the way.