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Gwen Brown is the Senior Content Marketer at Aurora Solar, managing the development of educational solar resources like blog posts and webinars. Previously, she was a Senior Research Associate at the Environmental Law Institute. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Gettysburg College.


Gwen Brown

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Gwen Brown is the Senior Content Marketer at Aurora Solar, managing the development of educational solar resources like blog posts and webinars. Previously, she was a Senior Research Associate at the Environmental Law Institute. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Gettysburg College.

Recent Posts

The Aurora Blog’s Top 10 Articles of 2019

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jan 8, 2020 9:52:51 PM

As we kick off 2020, maybe you’re thinking about how you can set your solar company (or personal solar career) up for success in the year ahead.

At the Aurora Blog, we too are thinking about the year ahead and what topics we can tackle to provide the greatest value to you in your work. As part of that, we took a look back at the topics and articles Aurora Blog readers couldn’t get enough of in 2019.

These ten articles were the most-read posts we published last year and are a great starting point for brushing up on key issues in the industry. We start with number 10 and count down to our #1 blog post of 2019!

Boost your solar sales success with faster lead follow up#10: Boost Your Solar Sales Success With Faster Lead Follow Up

Customer acquisition is one of the biggest challenges for solar companies and one of their most significant costs. This means that when you connect with a prospective customer it’s critical to avoid mistakes that could cost you the sale.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducted a two-year study that identified common mistakes in the solar sales process that can cost you the sale. “Our goal in this project was to understand better the decision making of potential customers that are considering adopting solar for their home, in order to be able to help solar developers and other industry stakeholders identify pathways to reducing customer acquisition costs,” says Ben Sigrin, one of the studies authors.

In this article, the first in a series exploring findings from the study, we examine why fast follow up with leads is essential. You might be surprised to learn that many leads don’t get a quick response—and just how costly that can be!

These tips can help you get solar approved by HOAs#9. How to Get HOA Solar Approval: Tips for Success

In some areas, Homeowners Associations (HOAs) can present significant barriers to homeowners’ ability to install solar. As a solar contractor, the extent to which HOAs impact your business is dependent on your state’s laws and the HOA bylaws in the neighborhoods you target. However, there are a number of strategies you can employ to help ensure HOA approval for your customers’ PV solar systems, regardless of where you do business.

In this article, we share best practices from interviews with solar contractors with extensive experience working with HOAs to help ensure successful outcomes on projects in HOA communities—and guide your prospective customer through the process as well.

Gippsland Solar won a solar deal for a new construction project with Aurora#8: How Gippsland Solar Won a Unique New Construction Solar Deal

Designing solar for a building that hasn’t been built yet presents many unique challenges, but the right tools can help your solar company overcome them and win more business.

Gippsland Solar won a unique and high-profile solar project for the globally recognized Penguin Parade Visitor Centre in Australia using Aurora solar software to design the PV system—before the Centre’s new building was constructed.

Although they had only the architectural plans to work from, Aurora gave Gippsland Solar the tools to precisely calculate how many panels would fit, how much energy they would produce, and present the designs in a compelling way for the buyer. Andy McCarthy, Gippsland Solar founder, shares the process and insights on how you too can put in place a winning system for designing solar for new buildings.

Learn how to approach commercial solar sales #7. How to Sell Commercial Solar: 3 Strategies for Success

There is a lot of complexity that comes with selling commercial and industrial (C&I) scale solar, including many factors that differentiate it from residential solar sales. Your commercial client’s motivations for considering solar differ from residential customers, as do the ways they evaluate your proposal and the processes by which they make their decisions.

To understand some of the important factors in a successful commercial solar sales process, we spoke with professionals with extensive C&I solar sales experience. In our conversations, some essential elements of a successful commercial solar sales process emerged:

  • asking the right questions during the sales process,
  • understanding the landscape of other energy and building upgrades your commercial client may be considering,
  • and selecting the right tools and technologies (including the right proposal and design tools to close the sale).

In this article, Part 3 in our Unlocking Commercial Solar series, we delve into each of these topics and how to tackle them intelligently to improve your chances of closing the commercial solar sale.

We explain what to know about commercial solar#6: Making Sense of Commercial Solar: What You Need to Know About C&I

Falling between the better-known residential and utility-scale solar industry sectors, commercial (C&I) solar encompasses a wide variety of customer types and project sizes. It also differs from residential solar in some key ways.

Commercial solar has been slower to take off than the residential sector, but there are signs that this sector is poised for significant growth. And, for those who learn to navigate the complexity of these projects, the rewards can be big.

In this article, we delve into a variety of aspects of commercial solar to help solar professionals understand the dynamics of this unique sector—including a brief primer on what commercial solar is, the scale of this sector and some of the factors that have constrained its expansion, and forecasts for future growth.

we explain what solar contractors should know about O&M (operations and maintenance)#5: What Solar Contractors Should Know About O&M

Over the lifetime of a PV system, operations and maintenance (O&M) can be important in ensuring that the system achieves optimal power production. As the solar industry has matured, O&M as a service offering has evolved along with it, growing from simple service offered by EPCs to a dedicated market segment comprised of independent service providers and robust branches of solar contracting companies.

A solar contracting company evaluating where O&M fits in relation to its services has a number of factors to consider, particularly regarding whether to offer O&M in-house or outsource it. In this article, we explore what solar O&M involves, considerations for solar contractors regarding offering O&M services or working with other companies specializing in this space, and some criteria for evaluating potential solar O&M partners.

NREL provides guidance on solar snow loss values#4: Your Guide to Monthly Snow Loss Values from NREL

Snow on solar panels can decrease the amount of energy they produce throughout the year. Yet determining the appropriate loss factor to account for energy production lost as a result of snow on the customer’s solar panels is particularly tricky.

Not only does the amount of snow vary widely between different locations, the design of the solar installation–particularly the tilt of the panels–can play an important role as well. Thankfully, NREL has developed recommended snow loss values for different types of solar designs in different areas.

In this article, we discuss this snow loss model and provide an interactive map to help you easily determine NREL’s recommended snow loss percentages for PV systems at different tilts and different locations. With this local, you can ensure your solar production estimates capture the effects of snow as accurately as possible!

Learn the differences between residential solar and commercial solar#3: The Key Differences Between Residential and Commercial Solar

There are a number of important differences between residential solar and commercial solar projects for contractors. Whether you're considering adding commercial solar to your contracting business or want to understand how different sectors compare.

To get the lowdown on some of the key differences in solar contracting for residential and C&I solar projects, we spoke experienced solar professionals in this area. Our conversation highlighted five notable differences between C&I and residential solar contracting, including differences in the length and complexity of projects, communication with customers, project costs, and financing. Read the full article to learn more!

These are the 3 questions to your solar sales pitch should answer#2: The 3 Questions Your Solar Sales Pitch Needs to Answer

Selling solar isn’t always an easy task—but the right framework can make it easier. This can help you effectively address the prospect’s concerns and communicate the value of a solar installation from your company.

Drawing from the key insights shared by Aurora staff members Elliot Goldstein and Kenneth Williams in a popular 2019 webinar we hosted with Greentech Media, we share practical strategies for improving your residential solar sales.

Want the full webinar's worth of solar sales tips?  Watch the recorded webinar here! 

Based on their personal experiences selling millions of dollars in solar installations for leading U.S. solar companies, Elliot and Kenneth also explain the three questions your sales conversation should answer for every prospective customer. Read on to learn what they are and how to tackle each of these topics for maximum success!

Learn the basics of solar panel wiring (solar stringing)#1: Solar Panel Wiring Basics: An Intro to How to String Solar Panels

Solar panel wiring (stringing) is a fundamental topic for any solar installer, but it can certainly be complex!

An appropriate stringing configuration is essential to ensuring that your solar installation performs optimally. If the voltage of your array exceeds the inverter’s maximum, production will be limited by what the inverter can output. If the array voltage is too low for the inverter you’ve chosen, the system will also underproduce because the inverter will not operate until its “start voltage” has been reached.

In our most popular article of 2019, we provide a primer on how to string solar panels. We review the basic principles of stringing in systems with a string inverter, including how to determine how many panels to have on a string and options such as stringing solar panels in series or in parallel.


We hope you enjoy these popular posts and thank you for your readership of the Aurora Blog! Did you have other favorites that didn’t make this list? We’d love to hear about what topics you loved in 2019—and which you want to hear more about in 2020—in the comments below!

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Topics: Roundup

What Is the Cost of Section 201 Solar Tariffs? New Data from SEIA

Posted by Gwen Brown on Dec 5, 2019 2:45:59 PM

In a young industry like solar, policies can have a critical impact on growth. Those impacts may be positive—for example, net metering has been a key policy for making solar cost-competitive in the U.S. (as have feed-in tariffs in other areas)—but that's certainly not always the case.

Over the last couple of years, one of the biggest policy shake-ups in the U.S. market has been the imposition of Section 201 solar tariffs on imported solar cells and modules. The solar tariffs made imported modules more expensive, counteracting years of dramatic cost declines.

New research from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) quantifies the impact of the Section 201 solar tariffs. The report, The Adverse Impacts of Section 201 Tariffs, assesses the market impacts from 2017 (when the solar tariffs came under consideration) through 2021.

SEIA finds that the solar tariffs, which have made U.S. solar module prices among the highest in the world, significantly slowed the pace of solar adoption—costing $19 billion in private sector investment, 10.5 GW of solar capacity, and 62,000 jobs!

While broader market reports are optimistic for the future of our industry—projecting that total installed PV capacity in the U.S. will more than double over the next five years—these striking numbers underscore how much faster solar industry growth could have been. In today’s article, we take a look at the details of SEIA’s analysis.

Section 201 Solar Tariff Background

In January 2018, the U.S. government imposed a 30% tariff on all imported crystalline silicon PV (c-Si PV) modules, under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974. This followed significant industry uncertainty starting in early 2017 as a result of the pending trade case brought by two module manufacturers. The tariff which started at 30% in 2018, gradually drops down by 5% per year, dropping to 15% in 2021.

These solar tariffs resulted in prices “43 - 57% higher than the global average, leading to higher prices for customers and reducing overall demand,” reports SEIA.

Comparison of global solar module prices vs. U.S. solar module prices due to Section 201 solar tariffsA comparison of U.S. (blue) vs. global prices (red) for monocrystalline and polycrystalline silicon modules. Source: SEIA, The Adverse Impacts of Section 201 Tariffs.

Higher Prices, Slower Market Growth

One of the key findings in the new data from SEIA is how these higher prices have impacted solar adoption. One of the easiest ways of understanding this is to look at how the solar tariffs have changed the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) of solar. If you’re not familiar with LCOE, it is a common metric used to compare the per-unit cost of different types of energy.

Solar competes against other energy types; higher component prices “reduce the size of the addressable market by pushing economics in favor of substitutes (existing generation, gas and wind) in marginal markets.” In areas where there is a thin margin of price difference between solar and other energy types, these price increases can make the difference in whether a solar purchase makes economic sense, as illustrated in the chart below.

LCOE by installed PV price + "hurdle rate" (cost solar must be below to work financially), per SEIA solar tariff data “LCOE by Installed PV Price and Residential Hurdle Rate for Select Cities and Installed Costs.” The two curved lines represent different LCOE values. The vertical position of the horizontal lines indicate the LCOE that a solar installation would need to be below in order to be installed in different cities, and the horizontal distance of these lines represents the range of possible energy yields in that location. Points on horizontal lines that are above the LCOE Curve are financially feasible projects. As you can see, in some areas the price increases from the solar tariffs may push the cost of solar out of reach. Source: SEIA, The Adverse Impacts of Section 201 Tariffs.

Ultimately, as a result of these tariff effects, the market for new projects between 2019 and 2021 has been reduced by 7.5 GW and, in total, more than 10.5 GW of solar installations will not be deployed. SEIA reports that this translates to enough electricity to power 1.8 million homes.

Solar deployment in the U.S. between 2017 and 2021 with and without the impacts of Section 201 solar tariffsA comparison of estimated solar deployment levels in the U.S. between 2017 and 2021 with and without the impacts of Section 201 solar tariffs. Source: SEIA, The Adverse Impacts of Section 201 Tariffs.

Lost Jobs

As a result of this decreased solar demand, SEIA estimates that between 2017 and 2021 there will be 62,000 fewer solar jobs than under a business-as-usual scenario.

Solar jobs in the U.S. with and without the impacts of Section 201 solar tariffs, per SEIAA comparison of estimated solar jobs in the U.S. with and without the impacts of Section 201 solar tariffs. Source: SEIA, The Adverse Impacts of Section 201 Tariffs.
 
See how Aurora helps solar companies grow revenue, cut costs, and impress their  customers!

Lost Investments

Similarly, cost increases from the Section 201 solar tariffs resulted in reduced investment in the solar industry. In total, SEIA estimates that $19 billion in investment opportunities was lost as a result of the policy changes.

Lost investment in the U.S. solar industry due to Section 201 solar tariffs, per SEIA.
Annual investment in the solar industry and estimated lost investments resulting from the Section 201 solar tariffs. Source: SEIA, The Adverse Impacts of Section 201 Tariffs.

The solar tariffs applied under Section 201 could have been worse; the industry has continued to make progress and forecasts point to a bright future ahead. (Stay tuned next week for a round-up of new state policy developments, many of which are positive for solar.)

However, these figures put into context the impacts of this national policy change on our industry at a macro level. Beyond the economic impacts, the slowed pace of solar growth had other significant effects as well. SEIA reports that CO2 emissions will increase by more than 26 million metric tons, equal to emissions from 5.5 million cars or 7 coal plants.

As a solar contractor, you’re on the front lines of bringing about a new, cleaner energy future. We’re thankful for the work you’re doing and aim to give you the tools to succeed—from lowering soft costs to sharing solar sales tips and interviews with industry leaders.

Let us know in the comments below what new articles would help you, or how your company has coped with the ups and downs of the industry!

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Topics: solar policy

Why You Need a Remote Solar Sales Process and How to Build One

Posted by Gwen Brown on Nov 20, 2019 8:47:51 PM

In the solar industry, it pays to move fast if you want to close a sale with a potential customer. In fact, sales research has found that how quickly a lead is called after expressing interest is the most significant driver of conversion rates. For that reason, it’s worth taking a close look at selling solar remotely—using screen sharing tools and remote solar design software—if you’re not already.

A well-executed remote sales strategy can help you follow up with leads faster and reach them while they are most ready to buy. It can also return valuable hours to your sales team, allowing your company to follow up on more leads and sell more solar installations instead of driving from home to home. Additionally, online sales calls may better suit the preferences of modern consumers who prefer to make purchasing decisions online rather than have a salesperson visit their home.

Finally, this approach can significantly reduce soft costs for your company by allowing you to limit costly site visits to just the customers you’ve already closed. Mike Wiegel at Solarponics, a California solar installer, experienced this firsthand:  “[Remote selling with] Aurora has given us the ability to do accurate site designs while reducing pre-sale site visits—saving us $500 per lead."

In today’s article, we break down what you need to put in place a strong system for selling solar remotely.

See how Aurora Solar software can help you close more sales in a free  consultation.

What Does a Remote Solar Sales Process Look Like?

When we talk about selling solar remotely, what are we referring to? A remote solar sales process involves selling solar to the customer from your desk rather than in the home or office.

The use of conferencing software that enables you to share a view of your computer screen lets the prospect follow along with any visuals, such as slides, your solar proposal, and even your solar design software. This allows you to showcase the design and effectively communicate the information the prospect needs to be confident in the decision to buy solar from your company.

This system is one that Aurora Solar Account Executive Elliot Goldstein used often in his previous role selling solar. Prior to joining Aurora, Elliot worked for a leading national solar installation company, where he sold millions of dollars of residential solar deals and helped lead an inside sales team that operated in 16 different states. Elliot explains that this process worked particularly well because it allowed him and his team to get an accurate design and real numbers to the prospect in under one hour.

His typical sales call would start off by talking through a slide deck that covered things like the homeowner’s current electricity bills, an introduction to solar, how net metering works, and the value the company offers (e.g., hardware details, quality of install, etc.). From there he would walk through the custom solar design for the prospect's home and ensure approval before getting into the financials of the project. [To learn more about best practices for a successful solar sales pitch, see our related blog post—which also includes insights from Elliot.]

Likely most or all of your existing sales pitch can be retained when selling remotely, you just need the right setup to support a remote sale. Let’s dig into that below.

Setting Up a Remote Solar Sales Model: 3 Key Elements

Many solar companies have found great success selling solar remotely. If saving time and money while connecting with leads faster sounds like something your company is interested in, where do you start?

There are a few elements to a remote sales strategy that works seamlessly: an inbound lead funnel (or other pipeline of qualified leads), a system for quickly responding to leads and booking appointments, and the right software tools to make the whole process work. Let’s take a look at each:

1) Create a lead funnel based on a strong online presence

A remote solar sales approach can benefit significantly from an inbound marketing and sales strategy—in which interested customers come to you. Even if your company already has an outbound sales approach of door-knocking or reaching out to purchased leads, adding an inbound strategy can help you tap the pipeline of customers that are already looking for a qualified solar installer. Many teams function with a hybrid inside-outside sales approach.

To build a funnel of inbound leads, you’ll want to invest in your website and build strong reviews on third-party platforms such as Google and Yelp by following up with customers. Having a strong online presence will make a difference to modern solar shoppers who are likely to do their own web research before moving forward in the solar sales process.

2) Create a system for booking appointments—with rapid response times

It’s critical that you have an internal system that allows you to respond and book appointments with prospects as fast as possible. A major benefit of an inside sales approach is that you can pitch and close the homeowner that same day—within the same hour even—of when they request the quote.

Research supports that the time when a homeowner is requesting the quote they are most likely to buy and you’re more likely to connect with them then. In fact, one study of 3.5 million leads, found that calling within the first minute of lead generation can increase your likelihood of conversion by nearly 400%.

To support lead generation, your website needs to be set up with a way to identify prospects and gather their contact information so you can follow up quickly. Options include: a pop-up form that allows them to enter their phone and email (this can be especially effective if you offer something of value, such as a solar factsheet) or a chatbot.

However you structure it, you’ll want to make sure that your team is prepared to immediately follow up with the prospect as soon as they enter their contact information. Elliot has seen success having a dedicated person or people who are responsible for quickly calling new leads to book an appointment, while their interest in solar is still top of mind. Depending on the size of your team, this could also be the salesperson themself.

It’s a best practice to gather the information needed for a solar quote in this first appointment-setting call—particularly information on their utility bill and the address where solar would be installed. That way you can have a compelling and personalized quote ready to present during the sales call. This also allows your team to identify early on if a prospect is not a good candidate for solar (for instance, their property is too shaded), before investing a lot of time.

3) Get the right software tools to support great, remote, sales calls

Of course, if you’re going to start selling solar remotely, you need tools to support remote sales calls and remote solar designs. Solar design software is a critical part of a workflow to get an accurate quote to a homeowner within one hour of the lead’s request.

Aurora Solar enables accurate shade assessments, solar designs, and financial modeling without leaving your office through the use of satellite and other imagery, local weather data, and other advanced tools. This allows solar contractors to quickly determine shading at the site and create a professional sales proposal.

Says Hans Frederickson of Cascadia Solar in Washington state, “What we can do now with the remote assessment [tools from Aurora] is put some nice graphics and financial information in front of a customer within an hour from talking with them on the phone.

a solar sales proposal

Software that ensures accurate remote solar design is the backbone of a remote solar sales strategy. Without software that allows you to be confident in the accuracy of your designs, change orders resulting from inaccurate design assumptions can cut into your margins—or cost you the sale entirely.

Aurora was built to ensure design accuracy without site visits, and its shading accuracy has been validated by NREL as statistically equivalent to onsite shade measurements. Other features, like measurements powered by computer vision, LIDAR, multiple imagery sources like Google, Bing, Nearmap, Google HD help ensure you can get a clear view of the site.

With a robust software that ensures the quality of your remote designs, you can save the site visits (to ensure structural integrity) to after the sale has been closed, and limit costly pre-sale site visits to rare instances. For Hans and Cascadia Solar, this change enabled them to double solar sales month over month and more than double sales year over year!

In addition to solar design and sales software, a video conferencing platform that supports screen sharing (such as Zoom, JoinMe, Clearslide, or others) allows you to walk through your slide deck and other information effectively with the customer.

This will enable you to showcase the PV system you’ve designed and effectively answer customer questions. For example, with Aurora, you can show the color-coded irradiance map of the customer’s roof so they understand why you recommend placing panels in certain areas and not others. You could even show an animation of the sun’s actual path through the sky at different times of the year and how the shadows move across their property or show what the irradiance would be like if a tree removed.

an irradiance map

You could also consult with the customer on things like how their energy usage (and bills) might change if they got an electric vehicle, using Aurora’s consumption portal. Taking this kind of educational role, and using interactive visuals, can help build trust. This is particularly important for a purchase as significant, and often unfamiliar, as a solar PV system.

You can round out your system with a tool like DocuSign or PandaDoc that makes it easy to send and get a signature on your contract, digitally.

Implementing a system to sell solar remotely lets your sales team respond as fast as possible to inquiries from prospects, allowing you to connect with them when they are most interested. It returns valuable time to your team by reducing time spent driving to potentially faraway sites—giving them more hours to respond to do what they do best, sell. Offering a solar consultation over the phone or computer takes the pressure off the homeowner, offering an easier option for the client. Finally, the soft cost savings from reduced site visits can be significant, helping to make solar deployment less costly.

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Topics: Solar Sales

What Are Soft Costs? The Frontier of Solar Cost Reductions

Posted by Gwen Brown on Nov 6, 2019 8:56:55 PM

If you work in the solar industry, chances are good that you’ve heard the term soft costs. But what does it mean and why should you care? Soft costs are a critical topic for the solar industry (and solar customers) because they are one of the barriers to making solar more affordable—and thus more accessible. In this article, we look at what soft costs are and what’s being done to address them.

What Are Soft Costs in the Solar Industry?

Soft costs are simply the “non-hardware costs associated with going solar” as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy explains. That includes the costs to acquire customers—from marketing and sales costs to assessing if a customer is a good candidate for solar based on their roof type and how much sunlight their property receives. It also includes the costs associated with permitting, interconnection to the grid, installation labor, and other assorted costs like supply chain and transaction costs.

Soft costs are the non-hardware costs of solar. This chart shows what they are comprised of. Soft costs, the non-hardware costs, of solar are made up of many components. Source: U.S. Department of Energy.

Why Are Soft Costs So Important for the Solar Industry to Address?

Soft costs are vitally important to address because they represent one of the greatest opportunities to reduce the cost of solar PV. That’s because soft costs have remained stubbornly high—despite the fact that the cost of solar hardware, like panels, has fallen dramatically. (The cost of solar modules fell by 99% from 1980 to 2018!) Soft costs now comprise more than half of the cost of a solar PV system in the U.S.

As of Q1 2019, soft costs comprised 67% of the cost of a residential PV system according to the Solar Market Insight Report by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. SEIA calls soft costs the “biggest cost-decline opportunity in residential and small commercial solar.”

By lowering the cost of solar, soft cost reductions are a key step to getting more solar on the grid—thereby helping the solar industry to keep growing and mitigate climate change.

Soft costs now make up 67% percent of the cost of solar in the U.S.Although the total cost of residential PV in the U.S. has declined over time, the proportion of soft costs—like supply chain and overhead, labor, design, permitting and engineering—has grown (see gray line). Source: SEIA and Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

What Are the Opportunities If We Reduce Solar Soft Costs?

We’ve established that soft costs are high in the U.S. and represent the majority of the cost of a solar PV system—but that’s not the case everywhere. In fact, we see dramatic differences in soft costs in different countries. A 2018 report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) report finds that solar installation soft costs "tend to be considerably higher in the U.S.”

Although hardware costs are relatively similar across countries, “the U.S. installed price was twice that of Germany's $1.50/W and significantly higher than Australia's $1.80/W, although both countries are comparable to the U.S. in other factors, like labor and safety standards,” explains Utility Dive, citing LBNL. Bringing down U.S. soft costs would help bring the cost of solar here in line with much the lower prices we see in these more mature solar markets.

A study by the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Georgia Tech Research Institute identified lessons from the Australian solar market for improving installation efficiency which could make solar installations faster in the U.S.—allowing installers to serve more customers and significantly reduce costs.

As the cost of solar falls, more solar is installed. As the cost of solar comes down, installations and the proportion of energy generated from solar go up. These projections from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Sunshot initiative, while focused on the total cost of energy, illustrate the importance of reducing solar costs. Driving down soft costs, which comprise over half of the total cost of solar in the U.S., will be key. Source: DOE Sunshot Initiative.

What’s Being Done to Lower Solar Soft Costs?

The importance of soft cost reductions to the growth of solar in the U.S. has not gone unnoticed. Solar industry groups and companies and the U.S. government have taken steps to bring these costs down by addressing a number of different factors. Approaches to lower soft costs range widely—from efforts to reduce customer acquisition costs to programs to streamline codes and permitting.

The DOE SunShot Initiative

One of the major efforts to reduce the cost of solar is the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative. Launched in 2011, the program aimed to “reduce the total cost of solar energy by 75 percent,” setting ambitious targets for the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) in residential, commercial, and utility-scale sectors. (In 2016 the program was 70% of the way to its 2020 targets, and in 2017, Sunshot announced that its 2020 utility-scale cost target was reached three years ahead of schedule.) While the initiative focuses on solar costs overall, supporting efforts to tackle soft costs has been one of the key ways that SunShot supports solar energy cost reductions.

Aurora Solar is a two-time Sunshot grant recipient for our efforts to make solar design and customer acquisition more efficient. One way that soft costs can be reduced is by eliminating some of the time-consuming manual labor involved in designing a solar installation for a customer and in assessing whether a prospect is a good fit for solar based on solar access/irradiance.

Sign up for a demo to see how Aurora can help cut your soft costs!

Aurora pioneered the ability of solar contractors to use software to remotely design an accurate PV system, using satellite imagery and other data like LIDAR and other 3D data, rather than driving out to the customer’s property to take measurements. The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that remote system design can reduce the cost of a solar installation by as much as $0.17/W—or $850 for a 5kW system!

Since the completion of our two Sunshot grants—one 2014 for R&D to automate the process of designing an optimal PV system and another in 2015 to pioneer the use of computer vision to improve remote site assessment speed and accuracy—we’ve continued our efforts to make solar contractors’ work easier and more efficient.

See how Aurora helps solar companies grow revenue, cut costs, and impress their  customers!

Solar APP: Streamlining Solar Permitting

Another important effort to reduce U.S. solar soft costs is the SolarAPP initiative, or Solar Automated Permit Processing program. Initiated by SEIA and The Solar Foundation in 2018, SolarAPP seeks to expedite and lower the cost of solar permitting.

Permitting is a key barrier to lower soft costs because the permit requirements for solar installations vary widely across jurisdictions. According to GTM, permitting adds about three months to a typical residential solar system installation and was responsible for about $1.00 of the 2017 median residential system cost of $3.70 per watt.

SolSmart

A related initiative by The Solar Foundation, the SolSmart Initiative, helps local governments reduce red tape and make their communities more supportive for the growth of solar energy. Over 300 communities have worked with the program to earn a SolSmart designation, indicating that they are solar-friendly communities.

California’s Solar Mandate: An Opportunity for Lower Soft Costs?

Another forthcoming policy, California’s Title 24 mandate which requires solar installations on all new homes starting in 2020, may also offer soft cost benefits. Citing NREL research, Utility Dive reports that the cost per watt of solar on new construction is likely to be considerably lower than traditional retrofit solar installations. Reduced customer acquisition costs, shared installation costs, and economies of scale are expected to drive these cost savings.

(Learn more about Title 24 here—and in our recent webinar with Solar Power World!)


Soft costs have stagnated for quite some time, keeping the cost of solar higher than it could be. However, there are many promising developments in the works, including our own initiatives here at Aurora, that are helping to reduce solar soft costs. With continued innovation and collaboration to tackle this issue, the future looks bright for affordable solar energy.

 

Topics: soft costs, solar industry

What to Know About the Solar ITC Step Down

Posted by Gwen Brown on Oct 16, 2019 9:00:00 AM

Whether you’ve been working in the U.S. solar industry for a decade or a week, chances are you’re familiar with the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), one of the most important incentives for solar customers. This federal policy, which allows owners to deduct 30% of the cost of a solar installation from their taxes, has been a cornerstone in the growth of the solar industry.

Stakeholders breathed a sigh of relief in December 2015 when the solar ITC–previously set to expire at the end of 2016–was extended for an additional five years. But starting in 2020, the value of the tax credit will drop down to 26% of the system cost as part of a multi-year phase-out.

In this article, we break down what solar contractors need to know to understand whether the full 30% ITC will apply to their customer's project depending on the timeline for the project's completion. Clarity on this point is essential to accurate modeling of the finances of the project and setting the right expectations for your customer.

[Note: This blog post is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Consult an attorney for guidance on your particular situation.]

The Solar ITC will be phased out from 2020 - 2022.The solar ITC will begin to be phased out starting in 2020. The phase-out will end in 2022 when the ITC drops to zero for residential projects and a permanent 10% for commercial projects. 

Differences the ITC Step Down Between Residential and Commercial Projects 

It is important to understand that there are differences in the cut-off for when residential solar projects and commercial solar projects may claim the full 30% solar ITC (as the Solar Energy Industries Association, SEIA, explains here). 

This is because the tax credits for these two types of projects are designated in different parts of the U.S. tax code. Although both residential and commercial PV systems have been eligible for the 30% solar ITC, the tax credit for businesses who invest in solar energy systems credits is established in Section 48. The residential solar energy credit for individuals who purchase a solar energy system is found in Section 25D.

A major difference between the residential and commercial solar ITC is that commercial projects that "commence construction" before the ITC step down date of January 1, 2020 and are completed before 2024 can still receive the full 30% tax credit. In contrast, residential systems do not have this "safe harbor" period. They must be completed (that is "placed in service") before January 1, 2020 or else the lower 26% tax credit will apply. 

Understanding the Solar ITC Step Down for Residential Projects 

As SEIA explains, "To receive the full 30% residential solar tax credit, the system must be 'placed in service; before the end of the day December 31, 2019. It is not enough to have signed a contract, or to have made a down payment or even to have begun construction. There is no bright-line test from the IRS on what constitutes 'placed in service,' but the IRS has equated this with completed installation in a Private Letter Ruling."

In the case of newly built homes with solar PV systems, where the customer is the owner of the PV system, SEIA clarifies that eligibility for the solar ITC is established based on when the customer moves into the home. This is only the case for solar installation purchased in connection with the construction of a new home. In the case of solar installations on existing homes, eligibility is based on the time of completion of the PV system.

Understanding the Solar ITC Step Down for Commercial Projects 

Solar ITC eligibility is a little less black and white for commercial solar projects. If construction on the project has not started before January 1, 2020, the lower tax credit will apply.

But what qualifies as starting construction? Solar contractors need to have a firm grasp on the “commence construction” policy to know whether a commercial project that may extend into 2020 will qualify for the 30% ITC. In June 2018, the IRS released guidance which answers this question.

 

Understanding the “Commence Construction” Clause

According to the IRS, there are two ways to establish that construction on a commercial solar project has started for the purposes of claiming the solar ITC:

  1. passing the “Physical Work Test” by starting “physical work of a significant nature,” or
  2. passing the “Five Percent Safe Harbor test” by “spending five percent or more of the total cost of the facility in the year that construction begins.”

In either case, the system owner will need to show continuous progress on the project after that point in order (the “Continuity Requirement”) in order to qualify.

Let’s delve into each of these cases a little more closely:

The Physical Work Test

The physical work test establishes that construction has commenced on a project when “physical work of a significant nature” has begun on the project. The IRS states that whether the work is considered “significant” is based on the nature of the work, rather than the amount or cost of that work. In the case of a solar installation, one example of qualifying work that the IRS provides in their guidance document is the installation of racking to affix solar panels to a site. 

System owners can qualify for the solar ITC by starting significant physical construction before it expiresA PV system owner can establish the start of a project for the purpose of claiming the solar ITC by starting physical work of a significant nature (what the IRS calls "the Physical Work Test"). 

The qualifying work may be undertaken by the taxpayer (i.e., the PV system owner) or a contractor working under binding written contract entered into prior to the start of work (i.e., your solar installation company). Technically, this work may take place on-site or off-site, however, in the case of a residential or commercial solar PV installation off-site work is less likely to apply. Off-site work does not include work “to produce components of energy property that are either in existing inventory or are normally held in inventory by a vendor”–as would typically be the case for solar equipment.

“Preliminary activities” do not qualify for the Physical Work Test. Some examples of preliminary activities include planning or designing the project, securing financing, researching, obtaining permits and licenses, clearing a site, or removing existing solar panels or other components that will no longer be part of the energy property.

Again, once construction has commenced on the project for the purposes of qualifying for the solar ITC, continuous work must be done on the project until it is completed.

The Five Percent Safe Harbor Test

An alternative way that a solar system owner may establish that construction has started on a project for the sake of qualifying for the 30% ITC prior to the end of 2019, is by having paid or incurred five percent or more of the total cost of the energy property. In the case of a solar PV installation, this refers to the cost of the PV system. This does not include the cost of land or any property not integral to the energy system. 

System owners can qualify for the solar ITC by incurring five percent or more of the cost of the project before it expiresA PV system owner can also establish the start of a project for the purpose of claiming the solar ITC by incurring five percent or more of the cost of the project (what the IRS calls the "Five Percent Safe Harbor Test").

There is an important caveat to this method of establishing the start of the project. If the project cost exceeds what was anticipated, so that the amount the system owner paid to satisfy the five percent Safe Harbor later falls short of five percent of the total cost, they will be found not to have met the requirement.

As with the physical work test, the system owner must also show continuous progress after this point in order to continue to qualify for the Safe Harbor. The IRS notes that this could include “(a) paying or incurring additional amounts included in the total cost of the energy property; (b) entering into binding written contracts for the manufacture, construction, or production of components of property or for future work to construct the energy property; (c) obtaining necessary permits; and (d) performing physical work of a significant nature.”

Combination of Methods

If a PV system owner meets both methods of establishing the commencement of construction, whichever method occurs first will be used as the date in which construction began for the purposes of the solar ITC.


Guidance from the IRS provides solar customers, contractors, project developers and others the clarity they need to determine whether and at what level the solar ITC will apply to a given project. With this information, your solar company can better advise prospective customers on how this key federal incentive will reduce the cost of their project.

At the time of writing SEIA is working hard to build support for an extension of the solar ITC. You can find out how to get involved in this initiative here.   

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Editor's Note: A version of this article was originally published on July 25, 2018. It was updated and republished on October 16, 2019 to clarify how the step down of the ITC applies to residential projects and reflect that the commence construction clause applies only to commercial projects.

Topics: solar policy

SEIA's 10-Year Roadmap for U.S. Solar: What You Need to Know

Posted by Gwen Brown on Sep 29, 2019 3:42:23 PM

This past week, the Aurora team had the pleasure of exhibiting at Solar Power International (SPI), which brought more than 19,000 professionals to Salt Lake City—making it the largest energy event in North America! SPI provided a powerful platform for companies (including Aurora) to showcase their latest innovations and for the industry to collaborate on important issues and unite around a common vision.

Beyond individual company achievements, perhaps the most pivotal outcome of SPI 2019 was the announcement of a new 10-year strategic plan from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Although the solar industry has grown by leaps and bounds, achieving exponential growth in installed capacity and formidable reductions in costs, today solar energy still makes up only 2.4% of the total U.S. electricity mix. Looking toward the future, SEIA has set the ambitious goal of making solar account for 20 percent of all U.S. electricity generation by 2030. Ambitious, yet achievable.

SEIA’s new roadmap—The Solar+ Decade: Roadmap for Building the Solar+ Economy—lays out an action plan for how this target can be reached, highlighting four pillars for achieving the radical market transformation that will be necessary. In today’s article, we dig into the action plan SEIA has articulated for the U.S. solar industry to reach 20% of electricity by 2030, what will be involved, and what all of this means for your solar company.

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Why Does This Matter?

To start, what are the implications of realizing this 10-year industry strategy? As SEIA President and CEO Abby Hopper explains, “If we achieve 20 percent solar by 2030, the potential payoff to our economy would be enormous.”

“Picture this: solar could add more than $345 billion to the U.S. economy over the next ten years, reaching $53 billion annually. The solar workforce would grow to 600,000 professionals and Americans would enjoy greater energy choice, lower utility bills, and cleaner air. Moreover, our success could prove that climate solutions don’t hurt the economy, but instead, are some of the strongest economic growth engines we’ve seen in decades.”

Clearly, achieving this target would transform not only our industry, but would bring about considerable positive benefits for the U.S. economy and the world. Yet there are many challenges that will need to be overcome to make this vision a reality.

As SEIA worked to develop its plan for achieving these goals, Hopper testified before the House Science Committee Subcommittee on Energy. She notes that she “felt it was important to share industry pain points with the subcommittee—like permitting and interconnection, workforce diversity and preparedness, grid modernization and resilience, advanced manufacturing, and energy storage integration—and begin advocating for a stronger solar future today.” Addressing these pain points will be critical to success.

Annual solar installations required (GWh) for solar energy to reach 20% of U.S. electricity generation by 2030Annual solar installations required (GWh) for solar energy to reach 20% of U.S. electricity generation by 2030, according to SEIA’s 10-year roadmap, The Solar+ Decade: Roadmap for Building the Solar+ Economy.

How Will Solar Reach 20% of Generation by 2030?

SEIA’s roadmap is built around four pillars. These are: aggressive collaboration, capitalizing on market accelerators, using market levers and policy drivers, and responsibly managing our growth as an industry. Let’s take a closer look at each.

1. Collaborating Aggressively

SEIA emphasizes that for solar to supply 20% of our country’s electricity, our work can’t be done alone. That means within our industry diverse sectors need to work together, and we must be united in our messages to build public and political support.

It also means reaching beyond the boundaries of our own industry to collaborate with other stakeholders and renewable energy sectors. That includes working “closely with the wind and storage industries and related technologies to create a comprehensive renewable mindset in this country,” as well as other stakeholders like utilities, climate advocates, corporate buyers, and federal and governments.

(See page 9 of the full roadmap for specific action items SEIA has identified related to collaboration.)

2. Capturing the Benefits of Market Accelerators

SEIA identifies “a number of market accelerators that can increase solar energy adoption.” Specifically, it identifies energy storage, carbon reduction goals, and electrification as key levers for enabling this level of solar growth. Storage will make it easier to incorporate high levels of solar energy on the grid, help customers manage moves to time of use rates, and the two technologies create new business opportunities for each other.

Climate policies, and related moves to electrify much of our energy use—from homes to vehicles, will create significant market opportunities for solar. We are already seeing the benefits of these kinds of policies at the state and local level, such as California’s (and other state and local) commitment to sourcing 100% of electricity from clean energy, and its mandate of solar on all new homes starting next year.

(See pages 10-12 of the full roadmap for specific action items SEIA has identified related to these market accelerators.)

To learn more about what CA's 100% clean energy target means for solar,  watch our GTM webinar with the California Energy Commission and  the California Solar and Storage Association!

3. Using Market Levers and Policy Drivers

A third and critical pillar of SEIA’s roadmap is the use of market levers and policy drivers. As the roadmap asserts, “The 20% goal is not achievable under business-as-usual growth projections. To put the industry on a path to deeper levels of penetration, we must drive down costs, develop new financing mechanisms, and build stronger federal and state policy.”

The roadmap identifies several specific areas of focus including climate policy, extension of the Investment Tax Credit—which is slated to begin stepping down at the end of this year, state net energy metering policies, building codes, renewable portfolio standards, regional energy market rules, and access to financing. It also highlights opportunities to further reduce costs, such as by streamlining permitting costs.

(See pages 14, 15, 17, and 19 of the full roadmap for specific action items SEIA has identified related to these market levers and policy drivers.)

Estimated U.S. Solar Generation (GWh) Across Policy Scenarios & Targets, according to SEIA’s 10-year roadmap, The Solar+ Decade: Roadmap for Building the Solar+ Economy.

4. Managing Growth

The final pillar of this 10-year roadmap deals with how the industry will manage this unprecedented level of growth in a responsible way. “Whether it is gaining a social license to operate by being good stewards of the land, proactively addressing recycling, modernizing the grid to allow for more solar deployment, protecting customers, or ensuring a diverse customer base and workforce, we have to show that we are growing in a responsible way,” asserts SEIA.

In addition to environmental responsibility on issues like recycling and land use, a key focus in this area is ensuring that the diversity of the industry reflects the diversity of the nation - both in terms of our employees and customers, as Hopper and other panelists discussed in the Opening Session at SPI.

(See pages 20 - 27 of the full roadmap for specific action items SEIA has identified related to managing growth.)

Estimates for solar industry workforce by year on its path to 20% by 2030, according to SEIA’s 10-year roadmap, The Solar+ Decade: Roadmap for Building the Solar+ Economy.

What Does This Mean for You?

This roadmap gives members of the U.S. solar industry transparency into the priorities of its national trade association, including what SEIA will be advocating for on your behalf with federal and local governments. The report includes specific action items and priorities for the short-term, mid-term, and long-term.

In the short-term, over the next two years, priorities include the extension of the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC). At SPI, SEIA presented estimates that a 10-year extension of the ITC would lead to $87 billion in new private sector investment and an additional 113,000 American jobs over baseline estimates by 2030. Other priorities include reducing trade barriers, increasing state-level coordination, and strengthening its technical capacity to engage in regulatory proceedings.

Over the next three to five years, goals include achieving adoption of its SolarAPP program to reduce permitting complexity, building a national PV Recycling Network, increasing diversity in the industry, and positioning solar + storage as the best, cheapest and most capable generation resource in state and utility resource planning (among other goals). SEIA sets other ambitious goals for the final five years of this ten-year plan.

We encourage you to check out the full roadmap for all of the details and think about how you can get involved! As Abby Hopper explains, “If the solar industry fails to meet our ambitious goals for U.S. electricity generation, it will be because we fail in the next couple of years lay the necessary groundwork. While it won’t be easy, it’s up to us to shape our future and create a new story for solar in the United States.”

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Topics: solar industry, Industry Events, Solar Jobs

How to Pay for Commercial Solar: A Financing Guide for Contractors

Posted by Gwen Brown on Sep 20, 2019 2:47:03 PM

Financing options for solar projects can be complicated, and that is particularly true for commercial and industrial (C&I) solar projects. Yet understanding the available financing tools is essential for solar contractors operating in this space. After all, determining how to pay for a solar project of this size is a critical first step to getting the project off the ground.

In this article, Part 4 of our Unlocking Commercial Solar series, we provide an introduction to some of the common commercial solar financing options—including considerations for determining which may make sense in different instances. While the complexity of these financing mechanisms means that a deep exploration of each is beyond the scope of this article, we’ll get you familiar with the basics and include links to other sources where you can learn more.

(Looking for a more introductory overview of solar finance for both residential and commercial projects? Check out our  Solar Finance Primer!)

We spoke with practitioners in the field to get real-world perspectives on these commercial solar financing mechanisms and what you should know about them. We talked with Dan Holloway, VP Origination & Acquisitions at Sustainable Capital Finance, a financier that provides commercial solar PPAs, and Conrad Chase, CEO of Point Load Power, an emerging cleantech company whose flagship technology, PV Booster rooftop solar trackers, is tailored to commercial and industrial building owners.

Holloway is responsible for building and managing relationships with all of SCF’s Developer and EPC Partners. He previously worked at Cobalt Power, a large EPC in Mountain View, California, where he was involved in the origination, development, construction and financing of over 200 solar projects. Chase as well has worked with many commercial clients to help them navigate the commercial solar financing process.

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In the commercial solar sector, there are a variety of different ways that a project can be financed, but some of the most common are: solar power purchase agreements (PPAs), solar leases, energy services agreements, tax equity financing structures such as sale leasebacks and partnership flips, and cash or loan purchases of the system. Let’s take a closer look at each.

We’ll start off with PPAs and leases, two of the most prevalent options for financing C&I solar projects. As we explain in our primer on solar financing options, under both PPAs and leases, the PV system is owned by a third-party financier—rather than the solar developer or the customer who will use the power it produces.

The third-party owner will receive any tax incentives from the system, such as the 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and depreciation. They can pass those savings on to the customer in the rates they offer, making this a preferred option for customers with low or no tax liability (i.e. taxes owed)—such as nonprofits. However, in both leases and PPAs, the commercial customer may be given the option to buy the PV system at certain points during or at the end of the contract.

PPAs

Under the terms of a PPA, the solar customer agrees to purchase the power the solar energy that is produced by the PV system from the system owner at a certain price over a set number of years. The term length of a PPA typically ranges from 10 to 25 years.

A solar power purchase agreement or PPA has historically been one of the dominant ways that commercial solar projects are financed. Holloway notes that, in the commercial and industrial sector, PPAs are “still the primary funding source that I'm aware of.”

And as noted above, the ability for customers without high tax bills to indirectly benefit from another entity taking tax incentives on their behalf is also a big contributor to the popularity of PPAs. “Nonprofits, and other organizations that do not have the ability to take advantage of the Investment Tax Credit—think schools, municipalities, churches, and charities like Boys and Girls Clubs—is in a position where there's no other way that they can take advantage of the ITC; they need someone to do that on their behalf. And [one of] the only financing vehicle[s] they can use to do that would be a PPA.”

PPAs are popular for other reasons as well. One is that they can be structured so that there is no upfront payment (no money down) required from the customer. Additionally, the long-term nature of some PPAs (e.g. 25 years) can allow for lower payments.

PPAs may also be structured with an escalator—meaning that the price the customer pays for the energy they purchase will increase at a certain rate over time. For customers looking to maximize their savings at the outset, escalators provide a mechanism for lower costs at the start of the contract.

PPA Considerations

If there is an escalator in the agreement, customers should look closely to see how the rate of increase compares to historic rate increases from their utility. While no one can read the future and know exactly how a utility’s rates will increase, it’s important that the escalator is based on reasonable assumptions of future utility rate increases. This minimizes the risk that the customer someday ends up paying more for solar energy than they would have buying power from the grid.

Aurora has partnered with Sustainable Capital Finance to make it easier than  ever to apply for commercial PPA financing!Learn more here.

(You can also learn more about our partnership with SCF in this blog post.)

Leases

Leases are another common way of financing commercial solar properties, and they share a number of similarities with PPAs. As with PPAs, the PV system is owned by a third-party financier and the deal can be structured so that there is no upfront payment.

However, instead of purchasing the actual power produced by the system at a per-kWh price as would be the case in a PPA, under a lease the customer pays a fixed rate over a set number of years. While this fixed rate is based on the estimated production of the system and it’s assumed value, the cost that the customer pays is not directly tied to system production.

Whereas under a PPA, the customer’s solar bill will fluctuate seasonally with lower charges when the system produces less, a customer will a solar lease knows that their payments will always be the same. On the one hand, this provides consistency and the ability to plan costs; on the other, if production is lower than anticipated for reasons other than a problem with the system—for instance, during an unusually rainy year—the customers bill will not be proportionally reduced.

Similarly, due to the fixed nature of lease payments, leases do not include escalators as many PPAs do.

Types of Leases: Operating vs. Capital Leases

There are two types of solar leases, with different accounting implications for companies: capital leases and operating leases. While an exploration of the full accounting implications of operating versus capital leases is beyond the scope of this article, a primary difference between the two is that operating leases are not held on the balance sheet of the company, while capital leases are.

As Holloway explains, “Most companies primarily use operating leases in the [C&I solar] space, as capital leases end up on your balance sheet. Most companies prefer to keep as much of their financing off balance sheet as possible for the simple reason that it decreases the amount that they can borrow.”

In essence, an operating lease acts more like renting equipment, whereas a capital lease acts more like a loan and includes some of the benefits and risks of ownership.

Lease Term Length

The length of a solar lease can vary widely, from as few as seven years to as many as 25. However, commercial solar leases are often shorter than commercial solar PPAs. “While it's possible to offer longer term Operating Leases, this is not currently the industry norm,” says Holloway. “In my experience, the vast majority of operating leases still fall into the 7-10 year term length category.”

The length of the lease will impact how much the customer pays. As Holloway explains, “If you only have seven or 10 years to amortize those payments, those payments are going to be considerably higher” than a longer-term agreement.

Energy Service Agreements

Another type of commercial solar financing that is similar to an operating lease is an Energy Service Agreement. As the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy explains, “Under an ESA, a service provider delivers energy-saving services using equipment it owns and operates.” Like an operating lease, this is a type of off-balance sheet financing, making it popular with businesses.

While legally distinct from leases, in practice, ESAs are similar to operating leases in that the customer pays a fixed rate for the “service” of solar energy (though ESAs can also be used to finance a variety of other building energy upgrades). In many cases, the ESA provider guarantees a certain level of energy savings.

Chase explains that many companies—especially ones with multiple sites or portfolios of properties—“often use energy service agreements as a no-risk way to finance a number of energy improvements, and essentially receive a guarantee of savings.”

Tax Equity Project Financing: Sale Leasebacks and Partnership Flips

As you can probably tell from our coverage of leases and PPAs above, the “tax equity” of a solar project—or the ability to reduce taxes owed by taking advantage of certain policy incentives like the ITC—is a valuable commodity for entities with high enough tax bills to make use of it.

While tax equity is important in many types of solar financing like PPAs and leases, there are other types of financing agreements that have been developed specifically for the purpose of allowing certain groups with high tax bills (tax equity investors) to utilize the tax equity of a project in exchange for investment.

These tax equity deals are a special category of solar project finance. They include partnership flips and sale leasebacks, among other structures. While these arrangements are too complex to cover fully in this article, we’ll provide a brief introduction to them and the basics of how they work.

Partnership Flips

In a partnership flip, a deal is structured so that the tax equity investor receives the majority (e.g. 99%) of income allocation of the project for a certain duration of time—specifically until the ITC recapture period has elapsed.. Following that point, the contract specifies that their allocation “flips” such that they can be bought out, or stay in the partnership while being allocated a minority (e.g. 1%) of the project’s income & cash allocations, with the majority then being allocated to the project sponsor.

As Holloway explains, “The tax equity partner’s goal is to monetize virtually all of the tax benefits. Their goal is not to own the asset for the long term... [just to] be a partner in the deal until the benefits of the tax equity—the ITC, depreciation, etc.—have been monetized.”

“At that point the tax equity partner “flips” out of the deal; they go from being [for example] a 99% income allocation partner to 1%. Then the sponsor has a 99% allocation, and they are in it for the long haul.”

A partnership flip is one of the most common forms of tax equity financing in solar.

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Sale Leasebacks

In a sale leaseback, the tax equity investor purchases the PV system from the project sponsor. They then lease the system back to the project sponsor who retains the right to use and operate the system and receive revenue through its operation. The sponsor has the option to purchase the system at some point.

Transaction Costs Impact the Use of These Financing Options

Solar project finance deals like these bring together several parties with different interests and goals in a project. Negotiating legal terms that are acceptable to all can be costly. As Chase explains, “because there are so many parties involved, there are high transaction costs to securing this type of finance.”

These high costs typically mean that such deals only make sense for large projects above a certain value. In addition to the large commercial sector, these types of finance structures are well established in utility scale; however, they are impractical for many smaller commercial projects.

Debt Financing (Loans)

In addition to the variety of financing options discussed above, in which ownership of the PV system is held by someone other than the user of the solar energy (at least for a period of time), a commercial solar customer can choose to purchase their PV system—outright (cash) or through a loan.

In these cases, the tax benefits go to the customer. Since cash deals are straightforward, we’ll restrict our discussion to loans. Solar loans are similar in many ways to other types of loans that you may be familiar with in your daily life.

Types of Debt Financing

There are multiple types of loans, including secured loans, which are “secured” by the lessee’s assets, and unsecured loans, which are not. For customers comfortable using their assets—like their real estate property—as collateral, secured loans can enable customers to get a better rate or to get a loan that they might not otherwise qualify for. To do that, the customer must own their building.

Additionally, another form of debt financing that has emerged in some areas is Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing. In PACE financing, the loan for the solar installation (or other property improvements, like energy efficiency upgrades) are repaid in the property taxes of the project site. PACE is only available in areas that have enabling legislation, but can be another good option of financing solar—particularly since in some cases the loan can be repaid over as many as 30 years.

Debt Financing Considerations

A key limitation when comes to solar loans is whether the project owner (commercial customer) has strong enough credit to get a rate that makes this option financially feasible—or to get a loan at all. For large companies this may be straightforward, but for others, especially small businesses, it can be a challenge.

Chase explains why asset-backed lending can be a good option for some customers. “Say your commercial solar customer is a building owner—a family business that's been around for 20 years and they don't have investment grade credit. They still may qualify for a loan, but they may have to have a very high interest rate. Ultimately, they may determine it's not worth it, depending on how much they're saving.”

“The benefit of PACE or a real estate loan is that their credit rating is not an issue because the loan is backed by the actual asset value of the property. That directly opens up project financing for solar and other energy upgrades to a whole group of customers that didn't have access before.”

Of course, whether this option is a fit depends on the goals of the commercial property owner. For instance, the lower borrowing rates of a real estate-backed loan may be appealing companies that plan to own the project site for the long-term—particularly if the solar project increases the value of their property. However, it would make less sense for a customer interested in selling their property.


As you can likely tell, commercial solar finance can be complex! In this article we’ve only scratched the surface of the details of each of these common solar financing methods: solar PPAs, solar leases, energy service agreements, tax equity financing structures including but not limited to sale leasebacks and partnership flips, and debt financing.

Depending on the role your solar company takes in C&I solar projects, you don’t need to be an expert in these kinds of solar financing mechanisms. However, it is important to understand the diverse financing options available and their implications. This will let you guide your commercial customer in understanding what options may be available to them and what questions they may want to ask.

Determining how to pay for the system is a critical first step to closing the sale, so the more you can do to help your commercial customer navigate this (sometimes daunting) process, the more likely you’ll be able win commercial solar business.

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Topics: Solar Finance, Commercial Solar, Unlocking Commercial Solar

Solar Fundamentals: What's the Difference Between AC vs. DC?

Posted by Gwen Brown on Sep 18, 2019 7:51:42 PM

In the solar industry, producing electricity is our bread and butter. That means it’s important for solar professionals to have a strong grasp of electricity fundamentals.

If you’re new to solar, there’s a lot to learn so in today’s article we cover a key topic to understand about electricity: the difference between two types of electric current—alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). Both are involved in a solar PV system.

If your familiarity with AC/DC starts and ends with the famous band, this article is for you!

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The Basics: How Do Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current Differ?

As we explain in our primer on solar panel stringing, current is the rate of flow of electric charge (i.e. the flow of electrons).

There are two forms that electric current can take: alternating or direct. Direct current always flows in the same direction. Meanwhile, alternating current—as you might expect from the name, changes direction frequently (though the back-and-forth motion of the electrons still conveys energy to the end device).

“A simple way to visualize the difference is that, when graphed, a DC current looks like a flat line, whereas the flow of AC on a graph makes a sinusoid or wave-like pattern,” says Karl K. Berggren, professor of electrical engineering at MIT.

Electricity History: The Fight Between AC and DC

When the use of electric power was first being developed, it was unclear whether AC or DC would become the dominant way in which electricity was supplied. Two famous pioneers of electricity—Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla—each advanced one of these options.

Tesla had patented AC, while Edison had patents on DC. Despite a smear campaign by Edison to discredit AC as dangerous (in which he went so far as to publicly electrocute animals!), AC won out in the long run. AC gained predominance because it was easier for power companies to transmit AC power over long distances.

Where Are AC and DC Power Used?

Another important thing to understand about AC vs. DC power is what kinds of devices and applications use each.

A solar panel produces direct current; the sun on the panels stimulates the flow of electrons, creating current. Because of these electrons flow in the same direction, the current is direct. Similarly, batteries use direct current; they have a positive and negative terminal and current always flows in the same direction between those points. In contrast, the U.S. electric grid and the power flowing into your home are AC. As a result, most plug-in home appliances run on AC power.

It is for this reason that solar PV systems include inverters! The inverter converts DC energy into AC energy so it can be used in the home or sent back to the electric grid (in addition to some other functions).

You might also be surprised to learn that many of the electronics you use—like your laptop and cell phone—run on DC and have their own inverters as well. The power adapter that is part of the charger for these devices is in fact a form of inverter that converts the AC grid supply to DC power that can be used by the device.

What Are AC Solar Panels?

As we discussed above, traditional solar panels produce DC energy. That energy is then converted to AC power by the inverter. This is the case whether your PV system includes a string inverter (which converts energy from one or multiple strings of solar panels) or microinverters (which convert it for individual, or in some cases a few, solar panels).

You may have heard of AC solar panels, however. If solar panels inherently produce DC, you may be wondering what these are. AC panels are simply solar panels that have microinverters integrated into them. System design with AC panels is the same as designing a system with microinverters, except that the installer doesn’t need to buy and attach the microinverters.


Understanding the differences between AC vs. DC is important knowledge in the solar industry. Not only is it essential to understanding how a solar array works and how it is designed, this knowledge can also help you educate customers—one way to build trust during the sales process.

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What other topics would you find helpful to understand? Let us know in the comments below! The Aurora Blog seeks to provide educational updates for solar contractors and we’re always open to new topic ideas based on needs in the industry!

 

Topics: solar energy, Solar Primer

4 Ways for Solar Leads to Share the Utility Bill Data You Need

Posted by Gwen Brown on Sep 4, 2019 8:54:22 PM

Accurate information about how much electricity a prospective solar customer is using—and when—is essential to creating an accurate solar design and quote to close the sale. It’s also key to building the case for why solar can help them. But getting this data is often one of the first barriers you’ll confront in the solar sales process.

To increase the likelihood of getting the data you need in a timely fashion, it’s good to give the customer a few different options for how they can provide their utility bill information. (It also helps to be familiar with the utility’s bill format and how energy usage data can be accessed—as we discuss here.)

Elliot Goldstein encountered this challenge often in his time at a leading residential solar company where he managed an inside sales team that sold to 16 U.S. states.

In the process, he learned a lot about how to efficiently get the utility bill data needed to create an accurate solar quote. We sat down with Goldstein, currently a member of the sales team here at Aurora, to learn some best practices for effectively overcoming this solar sales barrier.

Whether you’re new to selling solar or looking to improve your process, we hope these recommendations help you work more efficiently when it comes to getting electricity usage data from your solar leads.

See how Aurora Solar software can help you close more sales in a free  consultation.

Approaches for Obtaining Utility Bill Data from Solar Leads

There are a number of different ways and formats to collect the utility bill data you need, depending on how tech-savvy the prospective customer is and what’s available from their utility company.

In general, it’s better to get a copy (or picture) of the customer’s actual bill or bills when possible, as this will provide more information than just their total kilowatt hour consumption or bill amount in a recent month. It will also allow you to ensure the accuracy of the information.

However, you’ll likely need to be flexible depending on what the customer is most comfortable with or can do easily. Here are a few options:

1. Download a Copy of the Bill from Their Utility Website

One of the best options for getting the customer’s electricity usage data is to have them login to their utility account online, download their electricity bill, and email it to you.

You quickly get the information you need in a convenient format, and the customer may be more easily able to provide multiple months of utility data since all of their bills can be found in their account. This is a great option for customers that are relatively tech-savvy and already manage their utility accounts online.

You’ll want to be prepared to walk the customer through this process if they would find it helpful. As we discussed in a previous article, for this reason it’s important to be familiar with the utility company’s website and where to find the information you need.

Goldstein cautions that forgotten passwords are a common barrier to this approach. “Small things, like having a process in place so you’re prepared to walk them through resetting their password, can help streamline the process.”

2. Download Interval Data (If the Utility Offers It)

Another option for customers that are comfortable accessing their utility account online, is to walk them through the process of downloading interval data if their utility company offers it.

Interval data, which indicates how much electricity the customer used in different (usually 1-hour or 15-minute) intervals throughout each day in the month. It is typically offered in XML or CSV format.  For contractors that use UtilityAPI, a service that provides a fast way of requesting customer utility bills interval data, you can download the resulting data and easily upload it into your Aurora solar design software.

For solar contractors that use solar software that accepts interval data, this offers advantages for solar design compared to just getting copies of past bills. You’ll be better able to understand the customer’s load profile, which is particularly important for customers in areas with time of use rates. With this data, you may be able to design a better solar installation for their needs.

Again, as discussed in our previous article on this topic, you’ll need to be familiar enough with the utility company to know if this is something they offer, as well as where and how this data can be accessed.

See how Aurora helps solar companies grow revenue, cut costs, and impress their  customers!

3) Take a Picture or Make a Copy

Another great option is to have the prospect take a picture or their electricity bill and send it to you. This can be particularly good if they are less tech-savvy or having trouble remembering their login to their online account, but have a paper copy of their bill on hand. Scanning or copying it also works, depending on what’s easiest for the individual.

As Goldstein explains, “If you can have them take a picture of the bill with their smartphone and text or email it to you, that's often a good practice if they’re not as comfortable going on the website.”

You’ll want to ensure that they send pictures of all pages of the bill to make sure you’re not missing important information. And again, if you can get pictures of multiple months’ bills, that’s even better.

4) Authorize the Utility to Share Information Directly

Finally, in some cases, it’s possible to get the information you need for a great solar design directly from the customer’s utility. Where available, this is an excellent option since it doesn’t involve much time on the part of the customer. Plus, you can be confident you’re getting the right information since you’re getting it straight from the utility.

Typically, the customer will have to authorize the company to share that data on their behalf so you should be prepared to walk them through that process, which may involve submitting a form. Your company may also need to register with the utility as an authorized third party that can access this information.

If the utility company has one, you may be able to call a solar hotline to get their monthly kilowatt hours. Alternatively, some utility companies will share interval data (how much energy the customer used at specific, e.g. 1-hour, intervals throughout the billing period). This can be incredibly valuable in building an accurate load profile for the customer. You may also be able to access it through other third party companies that specialize in making this kind of data accessible.

Some electric utilities, like PG&E, let customers authorize the release of their energy usage data. This is helpful for solar companies.

PG&E in California allows customers to release their electricity usage data to third parties, which can be very useful for solar contractors. 

Build Efficient Processes to Get Utility Data Early

Whatever method the customer finds most convenient for sharing their data, it’s a good idea for your solar company to put in place processes to facilitate getting this information early so it can be taken into account in the solar quote you provide.

Exactly what that looks like will depend on your company’s structure and workflow. This might involve the salesperson making a pre-qualification call to confirm the interest of a particular lead and get electricity bill data as a first step before a formal consultation. Or, if your company has a dedicated role that helps qualify solar leads or book appointments, that person might take the lead on getting bill information at that stage.

Does your company also offer other services, like roofing, energy efficiency, or HVAC? If a customer expresses interest in getting solar in the course of getting other services, perhaps it makes sense to coach those team members to ask for the electricity bill at that point, so you can streamline the follow up process.


Electricity usage and utility bill data is a crucial first step to giving a solar lead an accurate solar quote and an appropriate solar design. While getting this information is a common initial barrier in the solar sales process, giving your prospect convenient options and putting in place an efficient process can help considerably. Following up quickly is crucial in closing solar sales so find the strategy that works best for them and you!

Has your company found other ways to efficiently get prospective customers bill data? Share your tips and tricks in the comments below!

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Topics: Solar Utility Bill, Solar Sales

What Solar Contractors Should Know About Customers’ Utility Bills

Posted by Gwen Brown on Aug 30, 2019 4:08:25 PM

Utility bill information is a prerequisite for building an accurate solar design and quote for a prospective customer. If at all possible, you want to have this information before you meet with the customer so that you can have an accurate and compelling proposal and be able to sell more effectively.

As a solar contractor, you’ll likely need to walk the customer through the information they need to provide, so it’s important that you’re well versed in the data available from the customer’s electric utility company.

That includes knowing what the company’s bills look like and how to read them, how to navigate the utility’s website to access billing information, and what types of utility rates the company offers. This will help avoid getting inaccurate numbers or having to go back to the customer for additional information because you didn’t get what you needed the first time.

In today’s article, we explore some key things to make sure you know about the customer’s utility bill and the practices of their utility company to ensure you’re getting the bill data you need. In a subsequent article, we highlight different options and formats for getting customers’ utility bill data—since getting that information is a common initial barrier in the solar sales process.

Solar software from Aurora makes it easy to model your customer's energy usage and create an optimal solar design and proposal. See how in a live demo! 

Where Can You Find the Customer’s Total Monthly kWh Usage?

Once you get your prospective solar customers’ electricity bill, you need to know what you're looking at. A critical piece of data you’ll be looking for is how many kilowatt hours the customer used in a given month and where this data is located on the bill. This is key because it will enable you to appropriately size the PV system for the customer’s needs and accurately estimate how much the customer will save with your solar design.

Often finding the total kilowatt hour consumption is straightforward, but other times it may require a little more work. Aurora Solar team member Elliot Goldstein encountered this firsthand in his prior role as Sales Team Lead for a leading residential solar company that sold to 16 U.S.

He explains, “Some utilities give you a 30 day historical average. You’ll then need to multiply that to get a monthly total. Others, like LADWP, give you the total kilowatt hour usage for every two months. So you literally need to divide in two. It really depends on the utility; you need to be familiar with the billing practices of the customer’s specific utility to avoid being tripped up by these kinds of nuances.”

Does the Electricity Bill Include Historical Data? If So, Where?

Many, though not all, electricity bills include historical data showing how much electricity the customer has used in past months throughout the year. This is highly valuable data as it allows you to more accurately model the customer’s energy consumption. If your customer’s utility doesn’t include historical data, you may want to consider asking for their energy usage in more than one month.

Software like Aurora, which accepts a variety of utility data formats and offers tools for estimating energy consumption in months you don’t have data for, can make your work easier. But like all modeling tools, the data you enter must be accurate in order to get accurate results. And the more months of data you can include, the more finely tuned your results will be.

 

Sample utility bill from National Grid showing energy usage in past monthsIt would be easy to overlook the historical electricity usage data (circled) on this sample bill from National Grid in Massachusetts. Being well versed with where to find what you need on the customer’s bill will help you get them the most accurate solar proposal.

Is the Bill Only for Electricity or Are Other Utilities Included?

Another key thing to know is whether the utility company that serves this particular customer only provides them with electricity or whether they provide other services like gas, water, and sewer. If those services are listed on the same utility bill, that’s important to know and be able to point out to your customer to ensure you’re getting accurate information.

Many people don’t pay much attention to the specifics of their utility bill. If, for instance, they gave you their total charges for the month but that amount also included natural gas charges, your estimations of their electricity consumption and the size of PV system they need could be very off.

This is also a reason why it’s better to get a copy (or picture) of the customer’s actual bill, where possible, as it allows you to verify the accuracy of the information they’re providing.

An example utility bill from Fort Collins Utilities that includes both electricity and water charges. An example utility bill from Fort Collins Utilities that includes both electricity and water charges.

What Types of Rates Does the Utility Commonly Offer? Is the Customer on a Tiered or Time of Use Rate?

Another thing that can trip you up if you’re new to the industry is atypical electricity rates like tiered rates, which charge different prices for energy depending on how much the customer has used, or time of use rates, which charge different rates per kWh depending on the time of day it is used.

If you were to assume that they paid the same price for every kWh and attempt to work backwards from their bill cost when they are actually on one of these variable price plans you’d wind up with inaccurate energy consumption data.

Again, getting the actual electricity bill from the customer, rather than just a total number is helpful. If that’s not forthcoming, you’ll want to at least get confirmation of what rate plan they are on to avoid any incorrect assumptions.

Sample utility bill for water and electric from SMUDAn example electricity bill from Sacramento Municipal Utility (SMUD) for a customer on a time of use rate (indicated in sections 4 and 6).

Be Familiar with Downloading Usage and Bill Information from the Utility Website

In addition to understanding what information can be found on the bills of the particular utility company and what types of rates are common, you’ll want to be familiar with how to navigate the website to download one’s bill and energy consumption data.

You’ll want to know how things look from the customer’s end and how they can view their account so that you can walk them through downloading the necessary information if needed.

Does the Utility Have a Solar Hotline? Can the Customer Authorize Third Parties to Access Their Energy Usage Data?

Another good thing to know is whether the utility has a solar or renewable energy hotline or whether it has an option that allows the customer to authorize them to release electricity usage data to you or another third-party entity directly.

Some utilities—like PG&E in California, or Alliant Energy in Iowa and Wisconsin—provide phone numbers that can be called to access historical energy consumption data for a customer.

“For example,” says Goldstein, “PG&E has a specific solar hotline. You can call this number with the account number of your homeowner and the line will read off their kilowatt hour usage over the last year.”

Alliant Energy provides a hotline for electricity usage data of solar customers and an option for customers to authorize the release of their data.

Similarly, a number of utilities allow customers to grant permission for the release of their data to you, or other parties, directly. This can be especially valuable as you may be able to get more detailed data about how much energy they use at specific intervals throughout the day (“interval data” often referred to as Green Button Data). Additionally, some companies, like Utility API, specialize in providing customer’s energy consumption data for utilities that support this kind of data release.

Southern California Edison customers can grant permission for their electricity data to be releasedAn example of how customers of Southern California Edison can authorize the utility to release their data to third parties, such as solar contractors. This kind of direct access can make your life easier since you don’t need to wait on the customer to send you the data—though you will need them to grant you access.

If you’re using a solar design software like Aurora that allows you to upload interval data, this will enable to you to get a much deeper understanding of the customer’s actual energy usage. This allows for the most accurate model of their pre- and post-solar utility bills.


Understanding these nuances of your customer’s utility company, its website, bills, and billing practices is an essential first step to ensure you get the right data from the customer and can design an accurate and compelling solar proposal.

It can be challenging to know all of these variations if your solar company covers a large area with many different utilities; in that case you may want to consider having different staff specialize in different utilities or have a designated person whose job it is to stay up to speed on this information.

Of course, knowing what data you’re looking for and where the customer can find that information is just the first step. It’s also good to have processes in place to make it as easy as possible to get that information from the customer, including providing a few different options. In a subsequent article, we’ll highlight different ways customers can provide you with the energy consumption data you need.

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Topics: Solar Utility Bill, electricity bill

How to Sell Commercial Solar: 3 Strategies for Success

Posted by Gwen Brown on Aug 7, 2019 9:00:00 AM

There is a lot of complexity that comes with selling commercial and industrial (C&I) scale solar, including many factors that differentiate it from residential solar sales. Your commercial client’s motivations for considering solar differ from residential customers, as do the ways they evaluate your proposal and the processes by which they make their decisions.

To understand some of the important factors in a successful C&I sales process, we spoke with professionals with extensive C&I solar sales experience, including Conrad Chase, CEO of Point Load Power, manufacturer of PV Booster rooftop solar trackers for commercial and industrial rooftops. We also spoke with Nico Johnson, host of SunCast, a podcast that shares the experiences of clean energy entrepreneurs, with over a decade of experience in the solar industry.

In our conversations with Chase and Johnson, some essential elements of a successful commercial solar sales process emerged: asking the right questions during the sales process, understanding the landscape of other energy and building upgrades your commercial client may be considering, and selecting the right tools and technologies (including the right proposal and design tools to close the sale).

In this article, Part 3 in our Unlocking Commercial Solar series, we’ll delve into each of these topics and how to tackle them intelligently to improve your chances of closing the commercial sale.

Aurora Solar supports both residential and commercial solar design and sales.  Learn more in a free demo.

1. Ask the Right Questions to Tailor Your Commercial Solar Sales Pitch

One of the fundamental errors of commercial solar sales that came up in our conversations with both Chase and Johnson was the failure to ask the right questions. “Asking the right questions is so important in this category. And what we found over talking to hundreds of installers is that they’re flat out missing the mark,” said Chase.

As Chase explained, asking the right questions is important because it lets you make the right proposal for your customer's needs. This can allow you to deliver a more compelling deal and increase your chances of winning the sale. Johnson also emphasized the importance of asking the right questions in allowing you to connect with the right decision-maker in the organization who can actually get the project approved.

Let’s take a look at a few of the key questions you should be asking.

Understand the Lease Structure and Owner-Occupant Relationship

A fundamental category of questions that Chase highlighted relates to understanding the relationship between the building owner and tenants (if any).

As discussed in our earlier articles in this series (Key Players in a Commercial Solar Project and Making Sense of Commercial Solar), one of the factors that makes commercial solar projects more complicated is that the owner of the building with the authority to approve a solar purchase is often not the occupant of the building who will benefit from lower utility bills.

Questions about the lease structure and the relationship between the building owner and tenant (if any) allow you to understand these complexities at the outset. This can help you determine whether the prospect is worth pursuing and, if so, how to tailor your solar design and proposal appropriately.

While there are many types of commercial projects and lease structures, Chase highlighted three common lease / building-tenant arrangements that Point Load Power often sees. From least to most complex, these are:

  • owner-occupied buildings,
  • buildings with a single tenant in a triple net lease (a type of lease in which the building owner provides the building as-is and the tenant is responsible for any building repairs, upgrades, utility costs, property taxes, etc.),
  • and multi-tenant buildings (which may have different lease types including triple net or gross leases).

Owner-occupied buildings make for the most straightforward commercial solar projects because the building occupant who benefits from energy savings and the owner who can make solar purchasing decisions are one and the same. Particularly if you’re just getting started it may make sense to focus your energy on projects that are less complex in terms of the lease and tenant situation.

If the building has lease, some of the lease-related questions to ask include:

  • What type of lease is in place and what is the tenant-owner relationship?
  • Who's the tenant?
  • Who is the owner?
  • How long is the lease?
  • How long is left in the lease?
  • Who has responsibility for the roof?

See how Aurora helps solar companies grow revenue, cut costs, and impress their  customers!

Understand the Financial Objectives and Considerations of the Parties Involved

It is also essential to understand the financial objectives of the parties involved— particularly the building owner and the entity that will own the solar installation (in many cases these will be the same, though not if a third-party-owned financing option is selected). You’ll also want to understand the motivations of the tenant(s) if there are any.

Chase highlighted the importance of understanding the objective of the building owner related to the ownership of the building. “For example, is this property going to be flipped and sold to some bigger company? Is the property owned by some individual that has a long term buy and hold strategy?”

With regard to single-tenant buildings with a triple net lease, he noted that a significant financial consideration for building owners is how likely their tenant is to renew their lease and at what cost. “The building owner wants longer-term leases, with higher lease rents. And they want that to be as secure as possible, because the more secure that their income is for the building, the easier it is that they get bank financing.”

Reduced utility bills through a commercial solar installation can be a significant motivator for the tenant to renew their lease and can be a means for the building owner to obtain higher rents. Additionally, the revenue from a solar installation may enable the building owner to offer incentives that increase the appeal of a lease for a new or renewing tenant.

This scenario is exemplified in a large commercial project that Point Load Power developed for building owner Harry Ross Industries, whose prospective tenant, Chiquita Brands International, was enticed by utility bill savings solar would provide on their refrigerated warehouse.

Meanwhile, you’ll also want to understand the considerations of the tenant(s) involved. As Chase explains, “It actually depends very much on the tenant, but in general, they're already in or signing up for a lease, they certainly don't want their power bill to go up. And some may have some requirements around, you know, flexibility up on the roof, you know, if they want to put something up there, like an HVAC unit or some other piece of gear, you know, there might be some actual structural consideration that they need to they need to be aware of.”

Finally, you’ll also need to ask questions to understand the financial objectives of the entity that will own the solar installation. In particular, it can be helpful to understand the organization’s tax situation as this will influence whether they can benefit from tax credits for solar.

“Knowing these nuances will shape how the installer makes their pitch and what types of things they pitch” says Chase.

Find the Real Decision-maker

Another essential element of asking the right questions is to ask questions to identify the individual or individuals who actually have the authority to sign off on a solar purchase. Unlike a residential sale which has fewer decision-makers involved, commercial solar projects involve many stakeholders and its up to the sales person to identify who has the authority to move the project forward.

This is a common C&I sales pitfall according to Johnson. Often “[contractors] get their foot in the door, they've done a great job prospecting, they've got the tools, maybe they've got a good layout and energy analysis—but they're just plain talking to their own person.”

In many cases, he says “the only person they've been able to get open the door is the facilities manager. Well, in very rare cases is the facilities manager actually making the decision. But if you recognize that the facilities manager is your champion, and you understand large account management, and your sales team trained right, then you’ll be able to get to the decision-makers—the board of directors or whoever is going to actually stroke the check—in an efficient process. Identify the economic versus the technical buyer.”

Make sure you ask the questions necessary to understand find the real decision-maker.

2. Understand the “Ecosystem” of Other Energy and Building Upgrades Competing for the Same Budget

Another important element of a successful C&I sales process according to Chase is to understand the variety of other options that are competing for the same part of your commercial client’s budget. He says that often solar contractors assume that their main competition is other solar proposals.

In fact, there are many other energy and building upgrade options and technologies competing for the same dollars available for a solar purchase. These include things like energy-efficient windows, roof replacements, new HVAC units, and many other potential investments.

In some cases, these investments may have shorter payback periods than solar. But pairing solar with these other upgrades may yield a more compelling proposal for the client—particularly if the other technologies are eligible for rebates or other incentives.

It’s also crucial to understand that some of these investments may be things that the client needs to undertake to maintain their building. Chase gave the example of a university that Point Load Power worked with. The building in question needed a new roof, as well as to upgrade very old HVAC units that were at risk of breaking, as well as several other changes.

By asking questions to understand the other building initiatives the client was undertaking, the team was able to learn that after the other improvements were done, the load profile of the building would be drastically different. Because of the improved energy efficiency of the building, its energy consumption would be drastically less.

With this knowledge, the team proposed a smaller, 400kW PV system that better matched the actual future needs of their prospect, compared to megawatt-scale projects proposed by competitors. “In summary,” Chase explains, “understanding the ecosystem of solutions is critical because it allows installers to make the right proposal.”

3. Use the Right Tools and Technologies

A final critical element of a successful commercial solar sales approach is to use the right tools and technologies. This includes both the technologies that you propose in your commercial solar project, as well as the design and proposal tools—particularly software—that you use.

Both Chase and Johnson highlighted the importance of robust solar software tools to successfully closing a C&I deal. “The right proposal and design tools are critical,” says Chase. “Software that allows an installer to look at a bunch of different scenarios, factoring the other technologies that are in play and may result in a new load profile—to run those scenarios quickly, is important.”

Johnson added, “I see a lot of folks that try to scale in the C&I not investing in the software upfront. And so they try to do the hard math, hoping that they'll do they'll close a deal that'll justify the software expense, rather than justifying the software expense because it'll help you close a hard deal.”

Choosing the right technologies to include in your solar design is also essential in delivering the proposal that will be most compelling to the client. “In the story of the university, they did not want to put carport solar, because it was really expensive,” explains Chase. And because they were already replacing the roof, they were interested in adding rooftop solar at the same time. In that case, Point Load Power’s proposal of an efficient option that offered higher production with fewer modules appealed to the client’s desire to minimize the amount of equipment on their new roof.


Commercial solar sales are complex. That’s particularly true if you’re new to the sector—for instance if you’re transitioning into commercial solar from residential. Bearing these best practices in mind—asking the right questions, understanding the landscape of competing technologies and building upgrades, and using the right tools and technologies—gives you a better chance of closing the deal.

What else have you found to be critical to a successful commercial solar sales process? Let us know in the comments below!

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Topics: Commercial Solar, Unlocking Commercial Solar

Changing the Game of Commercial Solar Finance—A New Partnership

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jul 21, 2019 1:33:31 PM

Commercial solar can be a lucrative sector for solar companies, but access to financing can be a significant challenge. Obtaining the necessary capital can be particularly difficult for certain classes of customers and projects—like nonprofits and small projects below a certain kW size.

This barrier is one of the reasons that the commercial solar sector has been slow to take off; despite significantly larger projects, the installed capacity of commercial (C&I) solar is currently far less than residential PV in the U.S.

Aurora Solar’s new partnership with Sustainable Capital Finance aims to tackle this challenge and make commercial solar financing more accessible in the industry. Through this partnership, Aurora customers can view live PPA rates and apply for commercial solar PPA financing for projects over 100kW located in the U.S.—without leaving their Aurora solar sales and design platform.

Learn more and get access to Aurora's commercial solar financing tools!

There are several key benefits this offers to solar contractors:

1. Increased transparency about financing rates

One key benefit of Aurora and SCF’s Financing Integration is increased access to information on financing rates for solar contractors, through our Quick Quote functionality. Quick Quote allows you to view real, actionable solar PPA financing rates that SCF is offering for your project.

As you explore different financing options for your commercial project using Aurora’s financial analysis tools, you can add “PPA Finance by Sustainable Capital Finance” and a PPA rate will be instantly generated for your project.

This allows you to set clear expectations for your customers about what rates they may be able to access. This can be particularly helpful for customers who are concerned about the availability of financing options for them.

Additionally, because you’re presenting rates that you know are available to qualifying customers, there is a lower likelihood that the actual rate is significantly different than the assumptions you presented—thus reducing the likelihood that the sale falls through.

Quick Quote, one part of Aurora Solar’s partnership with Sustainable Capital Finance, makes it possible to immediately view real commercial solar PPA ratesQuick Quote, one part of Aurora Solar’s partnership with Sustainable Capital Finance, makes it possible to immediately view real commercial solar PPA rates that SCF is offering.

2. Improved access to capital—particularly for projects and customers that have a harder time accessing financing

Another key advantage of our financing integration with SCF is increased access to capital. Rather than searching for financing partners that serve projects like yours, you have one at your fingertips.

Further, solar PPA financing from SCF is notable in that it is accessible to customers and projects that have traditionally had a harder time accessing capital: nonprofits and small commercial projects.

Aurora solar gives companies the tools to design and sell commercial AND  residential solar projects more efficiently and accurately! See what our  customers are saying.

As Dan Holloway, VP Origination & Acquisitions at SCF explains, “most companies that offer PPA financing do not offer financing for projects smaller than 1 MW, and almost none that will go below 500 kW. Sustainable Capital (SCF) believes that this is a vast and very under-supported part of the overall solar PV market. We offer PPA financing for projects as small as 100 kW and happily support nonprofit organizations.”

At Aurora, our mission is to create a future of solar energy for all; increasing the accessibility of financing through this partnership directly supports that goal.

Aurora Solar users can now apply for commercial solar financing without leaving the software, making solar PPA financing faster.Aurora users can now submit an application for commercial solar financing from SCF without leaving the Aurora software. All of your relevant project information will be automatically transferred to SCF for review, saving you time and effort.

3. Access capital faster to close more sales

An additional significant benefit resulting from this financing integration is the ability to reduce the time it takes to finance your commercial solar project. Not only can you see live commercial solar PPA rates with Quick Quote, as an Aurora customer you can directly apply for solar PPA financing without interrupting your solar design and sales workflow.

Instead of spending time rounding up the documentation and production data needed for a financing application, you can automatically transfer all of your design information from Aurora to SCF.

This Aurora information also helps allow SCF to efficiently process financing applications because they can be confident in the energy production data and other solar design information you are submitting. Aurora’s remote shade analysis has been validated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as statistically equivalent to onsite shade measurements and our shade reports are accepted as bankable by financing and rebate authorities across the U.S.—including NYSERDA, CT Green Bank, and the Energy Trust of Oregon.

As a result of software tools like this, SCF is able to price and underwrite projects in hours instead of days, allowing you to respond faster to your leads. Faster turnaround time has significant sales benefits—allowing you to respond to inquiries while the lead is hot or apply to RFPs more quickly and accurately.


Whether you’re new to commercial solar or have hundreds of commercial projects under your belt, it is our hope that this new partnership, and the resulting commercial solar financing options, give you additional resources to close more sales.

We’re particularly excited that this partnership makes solar PPA financing accessible to smaller projects and customers like nonprofits that have historically had a harder time getting financing.

At a macro level, this new partnership aims to make commercial solar PPA financing more accessible and more transparent. (That’s something solar finance expert David Arfin highlighted as a key opportunity when we interviewed him in 2017!) This is an important step to advancing the growth of the commercial solar market.

Though commercial solar has grown more slowly than the residential or utility-scale sectors, it’s a market with great potential. In fact, NREL has estimated that commercial solar on offices, hotels, and warehouses has the potential to reach 104 GW in the U.S. if current barriers are addressed! We consider this partnership one way of chipping away at those barriers to help commercial solar grow.

Learn more and get access to Aurora's commercial solar financing tools!

Topics: Solar Finance, Commercial Solar

Who Are the Key Players In a Commercial Solar Project?

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jun 12, 2019 9:00:00 AM

Compared to residential solar projects, commercial solar projects involve a considerable degree of complexity. Part of that has to do with the number of players involved. In a commercial project, you will likely have to coordinate with many more organizations and individuals. These include the building owner and tenant(s), an engineering firm (if you don’t do all the engineering in-house), local permitting agencies, financing partners, and third-party organizations that commission the system.

The roles that solar companies take in commercial projects also vary. It’s common in commercial solar for several different firms to manage different aspects of the work. Depending on the skills of your solar company and the scale of the project, you may be involved in only the project design or installation, or oversee the entire process.

In this article, Part Two in our Unlocking Commercial Solar series which delves into a variety of aspects of commercial solar, we discuss the different actors involved in commercial solar projects. If C&I solar is new to you, we hope this article (and series) help you get the lay of the land!

Who’s Involved in a Commercial Solar Project?

Let’s take a look at some of the different actors that play a role in a C&I solar project, including the customer(s), the organizations that facilitate different parts of the project, the external organizations whose approval is needed for the project to proceed and operate, and the financing providers. We’ll discuss how each of these entities fits in and what they do.

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The Customer

It goes without saying that you’ll be working closely with the organization choosing to install solar, but what that looks like in the commercial sector may be less straightforward than a residential project. For one thing, the commercial building owner—who makes the decision to install solar—may not be the same as the organization occupying the building. Depending on the project you may also need to coordinate with the building occupant; they may even be an integral player in the process.

The Property Owner

The key stakeholder you’ll be coordinating with during the sales process and throughout the project is the owner of the property where solar will be installed. They will be the ones to decide if the solar project is worth investing in. As we discussed in Part One of this series, the type of customer can vary widely—from a local “mom and pop” shop to a major corporation.

And, despite the name “commercial solar,” government entities, schools, and even non-profit customers are also included in this sector. The type of customer and project site that you’re working with will play a major role shaping the sales, financing, and project development process.

We’ll delve into the commercial solar sales process in more depth in a future article, but it’s crucial to understand the goals and concerns of the building owner to close the sale. For instance, if the company that owns the project site leases it to a tenant and doesn’t pay utility bills for the property, then energy savings won’t be enticing to them. But highlighting other solar benefits—like tax savings, increased property values, or the ability to get longer leases from tenants could be what closes the sale.

The Building Tenant (sometimes)

If the building owner is not the occupant, you may also need to coordinate with the tenant of the building. For instance, you might need to coordinate with them during the installation of the project to ensure roof access. In some cases, the tenant may be a core stakeholder helping to drive the development of the project.

For example, as we’ll discuss in a future article in this series on C&I solar financing, in some cases the project financing can involve a lease agreement between the building owner and the tenant in which the tenant agrees to purchase the resulting solar power from the building owner. In this case, the tenant company may be actively involved in the sales and project development processes.

Aurora solar gives companies the tools to design and sell commercial AND  residential solar projects more efficiently and accurately! See what our  customers are saying.

Parties Involved in Implementing the Solar Project

As noted above, the process of designing and installing a commercial solar project and obtaining the necessary approvals for the system to operate involves many different players managing different aspects of the project.

In fact, as noted in our profile of a commercial solar project designed in Aurora for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, this is one of the reasons for the greater complexity in the sector. Not only are there more actors who need to coordinate, this division of responsibilities between companies can make it “challenging for electrical contractors who want to transition into a leading role to gain familiarity with the full range of project requirements.”

Here we detail the different organizations involved in a commercial solar project and what they do.

Prime Contractor / EPC

Companies experienced with this kind of project development often serve as the lead and manage all aspects of the project from start to finish—either doing all parts themselves or coordinating with subcontractors. These companies are often referred to as EPCs (short for Engineering, Procurement, and Construction). The EPC will be the customer’s point of contact, and may retain other subcontractors for specific roles.

The exact arrangement varies by project. This Solar Power World article explains what an EPC does and highlights some of the different ways that project responsibilities can be structured.

Solar Engineering

The engineering requirements of a C&I solar project are significantly more complicated than for a residential project, as we discuss in our primer on some of the key differences between residential and commercial solar. As a result, it often makes sense to retain a firm that specializes in this area to ensure that the project is up to code.

A key part of this is reviewing the electrical engineering of the project and ensuring the system will function safely and effectively. In many cases, civil and structural considerations must also be evaluated, for instance to ensure that the roof can support the weight of the project and that the project can withstand wind and weather it will face.

The engineering firm will ensure that the project can pass permitting requirements, and will also typically manage the process of getting permitting approval.

Solar Design

Designing the solar installation is another key part of the process. This includes the selection of system components like panels and inverter(s), decisions about row spacing and panel tilt and orientation, and what kind of stringing configuration will be used. In commercial solar designs, factors like walkway requirements must also be considered. Sometimes the installation company will do the design, in other cases the engineering firm will design the system.

A robust solar design software program can be extremely valuable in streamlining this process and ensuring a quality design from the outset, particularly for very large projects. For example, Aurora provides solar designers with tools for automatically detecting similar roof obstructions so that they don’t have to model hundreds of skylights or vents by hand. It also offers automated stringing, precise simulation of energy production and how much the customer will save given applicable utility rates.

large commercial solar project designed in Aurora Solar softwareAn example of a large, multi-megawatt commercial solar project design in Aurora. Tools like automatic detection and modeling of all obstructions (skylights, HVAC units, etc.) on the roof and automated stringing made the design process considerably easier and reduced opportunities for human error.

Solar Installation / Construction

Installation is of course a key element as well. Sometimes the construction and installation of the project may be done by a subcontractor, or it may be implemented the same firm that did the design (and sometimes engineering). Installation expertise and attention to detail are essential to ensuring a quality system that will pass the commissioning process, which we’ll discuss in the next section.

Project Approval

There are several other entities involved in providing the necessary approvals for a commercial solar project. These include the utility, which provides the interconnection approval and permission to operate necessary for grid-connected PV systems, the local government permitting office, and (sometimes) a third-party organization that conducts project commissioning.

Local Permitting Office / Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ)

The local government in the area where the commercial solar project will be constructed will have specific permitting requirements to ensure that the project meets all applicable codes and standards, including local and state requirements. Much of the information necessary for the permitting process will come from the engineering firm, which will often manage the permitting application.

Permitting approval will come from the local “Authority Having Jurisdiction” or AHJ. Typically this is the local building department, but multiple agencies may be involved depending on the project. Among the code requirements that the project will be reviewed for are fire codes, building codes, and the National Electric Code. An inspection of the installation will be conducted by the AHJ prior to permit approval.

Permitting is widely acknowledged to be a significant pain point in the solar development process (for both residential and commercial projects. This is because permitting requirements vary so significantly, making it near impossible for developers to standardize their application processes, and due to the significant amount of time this process often takes.

The Electric Utility

The utility is also a critical player in a commercial solar project (assuming it is not a freestanding off-grid system). Because a grid-connected PV system will be feeding electricity back to the electric grid the local utility must grant permission for the project to connect to the grid.

Before the installation process begins—and typically before any financing agreement is approved—interconnection permission must be granted by the utility. To obtain this, an interconnection application is submitted with information about the system design, the property, and historic energy consumption at the site. Typically the installation company manages this application.

For commercial projects, it is sometimes necessary to upgrade transmission equipment to ensure that the grid can handle the volume of electricity that the system may send to the grid. These upgrades will also be reviewed by the utility in its consideration of the project.

Later, once the PV system is completed, utility approval is required again to give the system “Permission to Operate” (PTO). This often involves a site visit from a utility representative to inspect the system and ensure everything meets their requirements.

Commissioning Firm

After the installation and interconnection of the solar project, commissioning is an important final step in the process to ensure that the completed project is up to standards and will meet the needs of the client. As a report by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Alliance program explains, this process is often done by an independent third party to avoid conflicts of interest, though the design and/or installation firm may also conduct this process.

As the Better Buildings Alliance report explains, “The commissioning process is intended to identify [potential] failures and align the system with expected performance. Commissioning also serves as a quality and safety control process. This is the time when the contractor’s workmanship and adherence to safety requirements, manufacturer’s specifications, and engineering designs should be closely scrutinized.”

Solar design and engineering firm SepiSolar describes the commissioning process in detail in their case study of a 409 kW commercial rooftop system they were hired to evaluate before the asset owner purchased the system from a project developer. They highlight their review process and some installation errors that they flagged for correction before the deal was completed.

Financing Partners

Last but certainly not least, other key players are the financing institutions involved in funding the project. These may include banks or financing firms that specialize in solar and clean energy financing. On the other hand, if the company installing solar has the capital available, they may consider paying for the project outright and not involving external financiers. Because there are a wide array of ways that commercial solar projects can be financed with a variety of different actors, we’ll delve into financing in greater depth in a subsequent article in this series.


As you can see, part of the complexity of commercial solar projects stems from the many different actors and organizations that are involved in projects. Although there is a lot of variation in the structure of different commercial projects, having a clear understanding of the typical players in a commercial project and their respective roles will help you grasp what’s involved in this sector.

Stay tuned for subsequent articles in this series which will explore other aspects of commercial solar projects, including important considerations for how to sell a C&I project and financing structures for commercial projects and considerations for which financing options make sense in different situations.

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Topics: Unlocking Commercial Solar

Making Sense of Commercial Solar: What You Need to Know About C&I

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jun 8, 2019 5:30:17 PM

Commercial solar is something of an enigma. Falling between the better-known residential and utility-scale solar industry sectors, commercial solar—or C&I solar as it’s often called, referring to commercial and industrial scale—encompasses a wide variety of customer types, solar designs, and project sizes. It also differs from residential solar in some key ways.

As Ian Clover, Manager Corporate Communications, Hanwha Q Cells explains, ”In the jargon-heavy world of solar-speak, C&I handily condenses Commercial and Industrial into a snackable sub-section of the PV industry. But as sub-sections go, the C&I space has perhaps the greatest scope for flexibility, offering a raft of possibilities from ground-mount through to ingenious use of rooftop space.”

For a variety of reasons we’ll touch upon in this article, commercial solar has been slow to take off but there are signs that this sector is poised for significant growth. And, for those who learn to navigate the complexity of these projects, the rewards can be big.

This article is the first in our Unlocking Commercial Solar series, in which we’ll delve into a variety of aspects of commercial solar to help solar professionals understand the dynamics of this unique sector.

In today’s article, we offer a brief primer on what commercial solar is, the scale of this sector and some of the factors that have constrained its expansion, as well as forecasts for future growth. In subsequent articles, we discuss the different players involved in commercial solar projects, how to sell a commercial solar project, and what financing for these projects may look like.

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An example of a commercial solar (C&I solar) project on a business propertyAn example of a commercial solar project; C&I solar projects can take a wide range of forms and sizes.

What Is Commercial Solar?

Commercial solar may seem straightforward—solar for businesses as opposed to residential solar for homes. However, commercial solar encompasses a variety of different types of customers and projects. In addition to businesses of different sizes, from large corporations to local small businesses, “commercial” solar customers can also include governments, schools and universities, and even nonprofits.

Commercial solar projects may take the form of rooftop arrays on buildings or ground mounts, and can range widely in size from kilowatts to megawatts. According to Joe Naroditsky, Director, Solar & Operations at the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA), an organization that connects nonprofits with solar bids, the C&I solar projects his organization facilitates can range in size from 50 kW for small churches and synagogues to 300-400 kW for large schools.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Using Aurora, researchers at UC Davis have examined the real-world solar potential of some of the largest commercial buildings in the United States. Their review of the largest commercial building in the U.S., a Texas-based aerospace company with 770,000 square meters of rooftop, found that it could generate 88 million kilowatt hours of clean energy! As explained in the Washington Post, “That’s enough to power nearly 5,200 homes for a year, offset 47,800 metric tons of CO2, and spare up to 388 acres of land.”

Obviously, this is the extreme end of the spectrum where building rooftops rival the scale of utility-scale projects, and this site has not been developed with solar. However, but it serves to illustrate the extreme variation in potential project sizes in a sector where the buildings and customers differ widely.

Constraints on the Commercial Solar Market

As you begin to read up on the commercial solar sector, one of the common refrains you’ll see is that this market has not grown nearly as rapidly as residential or utility-scale solar. As noted in PV Magazine, “The commercial and industrial (C&I) solar markets have been a relative challenge for solar developers to exploit.”

There are a number of factors that have contributed to this. For one, lower commercial electricity prices have historically made the economics of solar on commercial properties trickier. “The C&I sector has trouble competing against an average 15% or more lower price per kilowatt-hour rate than residential electricity prices, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. There is less of a discount in installed costs between the residential average of $2.80 per watt-DC versus “non-residential” of $1.85/watt, or the much lower less than $1.03-1.11/watt for utility scale in the first half of 2017, according to the latest figures from National Renewable Energy Laboratory,” as Mark Berger explains in PV Magazine.

Another barrier relates to the fact that in many commercial buildings the occupant is not the building owner. This “split incentive” means that the building owners who would make the decision to install solar are often not the ones paying the utility bills, making solar energy savings less of an enticement for them.

Financing is also more complex in the C&I solar space, and according to some contractor’s we’ve spoken with, less accessible. That is beginning to change, however, as financing mechanisms for this space become better understood by financial actors and there are more successful projects for financiers to look to and assess risk.

As explained in Solar Power World, “The first major hurdle in any project is financial viability: Show me the money. Commercial solar and now community solar are advancing beyond bureaucratic budgetary boundaries by systemizing structures for the private sector, consumers and third parties to partner and invest in energy infrastructure assets.”

Other barriers include “contracting challenges, the mismatch in building lease and PV financing terms, and high transaction costs relative to project sizes,” according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report.

Commercial Solar’s Current Scale

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, as of April 2018, there were 2,562 megawatts (MW) of commercial solar projects in the U.S. including installations by more than 4,000 companies across nearly 7,400 locations.

This level of installed capacity trails behind the residential market, despite larger project sizes, and is far behind the utility-scale market. As of 2016, NREL reported that non-residential solar (another term often used for this market) comprised 24% of the total installed capacity in the U.S.

Installed PV capacity in the U.S. by sector through 2017 and projected demand from 2018 to 2021, according to NREL.

Despite this slow start, there are a number of indications that this market is poised to take off.

Aurora solar gives companies the tools to design and sell commercial AND  residential solar projects more efficiently and accurately! See what our  customers are saying.

Potential for Growth in Commercial Solar

Among the indicators of commercial solar’s rise is the growing interest of corporations in powering their operations with solar. SEIA’s Solar Means Business report highlights the aggressive deployment of solar by corporations around the country, finding that in 2017 the “top 25 corporate solar users in America [had] installed more than 2,500 MW of capacity at nearly 7,500 different facilities.

Given the scale of many of the buildings in this sector, you can imagine that as barriers are tackled, the potential for installed commercial capacity is significant.

In a 2016 report, NREL examined the potential size of the C&I solar sector if certain challenges were overcome. They concluded that, at the U.S Department of Energy’s “SunShot 2020 targets,” the “techno-economic” potential for offices was 54 GW, for hotels 16 GW, and for warehouses 34 GW for a combined potential across these building types of 104 GW in the U.S.!1

For context, at the end of 2017, DOE reports that the combined capacity of all installed solar PV and wind power in the country was 144 GW.

Many of the challenges in this sector are already being surmounted. A recent white paper by SEIA and SolarKal highlights the fact that commercial solar projects can be structured in a variety of ways that split the costs and benefits across building owners and tenants to meet different criteria. They also emphasize the variety of financing structures to fit the needs of the parties involved, and the fact that solar is cost competitive with utility energy.

Commercial solar can offer many benefits—to building owners, commercial tenants, financiers, and of course the environment. For building owners, benefits include increased operating income and cash flow and longer lease terms, as the SEIA/SolarKal white paper notes. Reduced operating costs through utility bill savings are an obvious benefit for tenants of commercial buildings with solar.

There are also benefits for solar contractors that successfully navigate this sector. The economies of scale at play in these larger projects can make them more lucrative, in addition to the significantly larger total project price tags compared to residential projects.

Stay tuned for the subsequent articles in this series to learn more about the ins and outs of the C&I space. Whether you’re already actively involved in commercial solar, interested in transitioning into this space, or just want to increase your understanding of the industry, our goal with this series is to provide helpful perspectives on how the commercial solar sector works. In future articles we’ll delve into the various players involved in commercial projects, how to sell C&I solar projects, and some of the financing structures for commercial solar projects.

We’re excited for the potential of C&I solar as another key pillar in the growth of solar energy more broadly and hope you are too!

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1 - For context, DOE’s Sunshot Initiative was established with the goal of driving down the cost of solar energy. It’s solar cost targets for 2020 were: “$0.10 per kilowatt hour for residential solar, $0.08 per kilowatt hour for commercial solar, and $0.06 per kilowatt hour for utility-scale solar.” Sunshot’s target for utility-scale was reached in 2017. A Q1 2018 analysis by NREL reported that commercial solar cost per kWh in the U.S. has now fallen to 91% of the 2020 target, so the conditions upon which these estimates are based are not far from reality. 

Topics: Commercial Solar, Unlocking Commercial Solar

Solar Panel Wiring Basics: An Intro to How to String Solar Panels

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jun 2, 2019 2:45:15 PM

Solar panel wiring (aka stringing), and how to string solar panels together, is a fundamental topic for any solar installer. You need to understand how different stringing configurations impact the voltage, current, and power of a solar array. This makes it possible to select an appropriate inverter for the array and make sure that the system will function effectively.

The stakes are high. If the voltage of your array exceeds the inverter’s maximum, production will be limited by what the inverter can output (and depending on the extent, the inverter’s lifetime may be reduced) . If the array voltage is too low for the inverter you’ve chosen, the system will also underproduce because the inverter will not operate until its “start voltage” has been reached. This can also happen if you fail to account for how shade will affect system voltage throughout the day.

Looking for a specific topic? Feel free to skip ahead:

Key Electrical Terms to Understand (Voltage, Current, and Power)
Basic Concepts of Solar Panel Wiring
          Series vs. Parallel Stringing
          Needed Information about Panels and Inverters
Basic Rules for How to String Solar Panels
         1. Ensure the Minimum and Maximum Voltage Are Within the Inverter Range
         2. Ensure Strings Have Similar Conditions—or Connect Strings with Different Conditions to Different MPPT Ports
         3. Advanced Considerations to Optimize Your Design

Thankfully, modern solar software can manage this complexity for you. For instance, Aurora will automatically advise you on whether your string lengths are acceptable, or even string the system for you. However, as a solar professional, it’s still important to have an understanding of the rules that guide string sizing.

In this article, we review the basic principles of stringing in systems with a string inverter and how to determine how many solar panels to have in a string. We also review different stringing options such as connecting solar panels in series and connecting solar panels in parallel.

Solar panel wiring is a complicated topic and we won’t delve into all of the details in this article, but whether you’re new to the industry and just learning the principles of solar design, or looking for a refresher, we hope this primer provides a helpful overview of some of the key concepts.

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Key Electrical Terms to Understand for Solar Panel Wiring

In order to understand the rules of solar panel wiring, it is necessary to understand a few key electrical terms—particularly voltage, current, and power—and how they relate to each other.

To understand these concepts, a helpful analogy is to think of electricity like water in a tank. To expand the analogy, having a higher water level is like having a higher voltage - there is more potential for something to happen (current or water flow), as illustrated below.

illustration of voltage and current using the analogy of water in a tank

What Is Voltage?

Voltage, abbreviated as V and measured in volts, is defined as the difference in electrical charge between two points in a circuit. It is this difference in charge that causes electricity to flow. Voltage is a measure of potential energy, or the potential amount of energy that can be released.

In a solar array, the voltage is affected by a number of factors. First is the amount of sunlight (irradiance) on the array. As you might assume, the more irradiance on the panels, the higher the voltage will be.

Temperature also affects voltage. As the temperature increases, it reduces the amount of energy a panel produces (see our discussion of Temperature Coefficients for a more detailed discussion of this). On a cold sunny day, the voltage of a solar array may be much higher than normal, while on a very hot day, the voltage may be significantly reduced.

What Is Current?

Electric current (represented as “I” in equations) is defined as the rate at which charge is flowing. In our example above, the water flowing through the pipe out of the tank is comparable to the current in an electrical circuit. Electric current is measured in amps (short for amperes).

What is Electric Power?

Power (P) is the rate at which energy is transferred. It is equivalent to voltage times current (V*I = P) and is measured in Watts (W). In solar PV systems, an important function of the inverter—in addition to converting DC power from the solar array to AC power for use in the home and on the grid—is to maximize the power output of the array by varying the current and voltage.

For a more technical explanation of how current, voltage, and power interact within the context of a solar PV system, check out our article on Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT). In it, we discuss current-voltage (IV) curves (charts which show how the panel output current varies with panel output voltage), and power-voltage curves (which show how panel output power varies with panel output voltage). These curves offer insight into the voltage and current combination(s) at which power output is maximized.

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Basic Concepts of Solar Panel Wiring (aka Stringing)

To have a functional solar PV system, you need to wire the panels together to create an electrical circuit through which current will flow, and you also need to wire the panels to the inverter that will convert the DC power produced by the panels to AC power that can be used in your home and sent to the grid. In the solar industry. This is typically referred to as “stringing” and each series of panels connected together is referred to as a string.

In this article, we’ll be focusing on string inverter (as opposed to microinverters). Each string inverter has a range of voltages at which it can operate.

Series vs. Parallel Stringing

There are multiple ways to approach solar panel wiring. One of the key differences to understand is stringing solar panels in series versus stringing solar panels in parallel. These different stringing configurations have different effects on the electrical current and voltage in the circuit.

diagram of solar panels in series versus solar panels in parallel

Connecting Solar Panels in Series

Stringing solar panels in series involves connecting each panel to the next in a line (as illustrated in the left side of the diagram above).

Just like a typical battery you may be familiar with, solar panels have positive and negative terminals. When stringing in series, the wire from the positive terminal of one solar panel is connected to the negative terminal of the next panel and so on.

When stringing panels in series, each panel additional adds to the total voltage (V) of the string but the current (I) in the string remains the same.

One drawback to stringing in series is that a shaded panel can reduce the current through the entire string. Because the current remains the same through the entire string, the current is reduced to that of the panel with the lowest current.

Connecting Solar Panels in Parallel

Stringing solar panels in parallel (shown in the right side of the diagram above) is a bit more complicated. Rather than connecting the positive terminal of one panel to the negative terminal of the next, when stringing in parallel, the positive terminals of all the panels on the string are connected to one wire and the negative terminals are all connected to another wire.

When stringing panels in parallel, each additional panel increases the current (amperage) of the circuit, however, the voltage of the circuit remains the same (equivalent to the voltage of each panel). Because of this, a benefit of stringing in series is that if one panel is heavily shaded, the rest of the panels can operate normally and the current of the entire string will not be reduced.

Information You Need When Determining How to String Solar Panels

There are several important pieces of information about your inverter and your solar panels that you need before you can determine how to string your solar array.

Information About Your Inverter

You’ll need to understand the following inverter specifications which can be found in the manufacturer datasheet for the product:

  • Maximum DC input voltage (Vinput, max) - the maximum voltage the inverter can receive
  • Minimum or “Start” Voltage (Vinput, min) - the voltage level necessary for the inverter to operate
  • Maximum Input Current
  • How many Maximum Power Point Trackers (MPPTs) does it have?
    • As noted above, a function of inverters is to maximize power output as the environmental conditions on the panels vary. They do this through Maximum Power Point Trackers (MPPTs) which identify the current and voltage at which power is maximized. However, for a given MPPT, the conditions on the panels must be relatively consistent or efficiency will be reduced (for instance, differences in shade levels or the orientation of the panels). However, if the inverter has multiple MPPTs then strings of panels with different conditions can be connected to a separate MPPT.

Information About Your Solar Panels

In addition to the above information about your selected inverter, you’ll also need the following data on your selected panels:

An important thing to understand about these values is that they are based on the module’s performance in what is called Standard Test Conditions (STC). STC includes an irradiance of 1000W per square meter and 25 degrees Celsius (~77 degrees F). These specific lab conditions provide consistency in testing but the real world conditions a PV system experiences may be very different.

As a result, the actual current and voltage of the panels may vary significantly from these values. You’ll need to adjust your calculations based on the expected minimum and maximum temperatures where the panels will be installed to ensure that your string lengths are appropriate for the conditions the PV system will encounter as we’ll discuss below.

Basic Rules for How to String Solar Panels

1. Ensure the Minimum and Maximum Voltage Are Within the Inverter Range

When stringing your solar array, one of the basic considerations is to ensure that the voltage of the strings you are connecting to the inverter is not going to exceed the inverter’s maximum input voltage or fall below its minimum/start voltage. You’ll also need to avoid exceeding its maximum current.

You’ll also need to ensure that the maximum voltage complies with code requirements in the area where you are designing. In the U.S., the National Electrical Code caps the maximum allowable voltage at 600V for most residential systems. In Europe, higher voltages are allowed.

We know that voltage is additive in series strings while current is additive in parallel strings. As such, you might intuitively assume that you can determine the voltage of our proposed PV system design and whether it falls within the recommended range for the inverter by multiplying the voltage of the panels by the number in a series string (as illustrated in the example in the green box below).

Voltage Maximum and Minimum Calculations based on STC Values (not temperature adjusted):

Assumptions: I am using 300W panels with an open circuit voltage (Voc) of 40V. The inverter I plan on using has a maximum voltage (Vmax) of 600 V and a start voltage (Vstart) of 150 V.

I can get an initial rough understanding of the maximum number of panels that can be included on a string in series by dividing the inverter’s maximum input voltage by the Voc of the panels:

600 V / 40 V =
maximum of 15 panels on a string

I can follow the same process, but using the start voltage, to determine the minimum number of panels I can include on a string.

150V / 40 V = minimum of 3.75 panels
→ therefore minimum of 4 panels on a string

BUT, as we discuss below, this doesn’t give the entire picture. You’ll need to adjust based on temperature.

 You might also assume that you could determine the current of the system by adding the current of each parallel string (which would be equal to the current of the panels multiplied by the number in the parallel string).

However, as we discussed above, since STC values reflect the modules’ performance under very specific conditions, the actual voltage of the panels in real-world conditions may be quite different. Thus the simplified calculations above only give you an initial rough estimate; you must account for how the voltage of the system will change depending on the temperatures it may experience in the area where it is installed. At colder temperatures, the voltage of the system may be much higher; at higher temperatures, it may be much lower.

To ensure that the temperature-adjusted string voltage is within the input voltage window of the inverter, the following formulas can be used:

Aurora solar design software automatically performs these calculations and alerts you as you are designing if your string lengths are too long or too short given the expected temperatures at the site. (For more information on stringing in Aurora, see this help center article.)

Aurora also performs a variety of other validations to ensure that the system will operate as expected and not violate codes or equipment specifications—this can prevent costly performance issues. (For a detailed overview of these validations see this page in our help center.) 

Sign up for a demo to learn more about these features and see them in action.

For a real-world example of why it is so important to accurately account for how environmental conditions will impact the voltage of your PV system, read our analysis of an underperforming system in Cathedral City, California. In that case, a solar designer’s failure to account for the presence of shade resulted in the system frequently falling below the inverter’s start voltage and therefore producing significantly less energy than forecasted.

2. Ensure Strings Have Similar Conditions—or Connect Strings with Different Conditions to Different MPPT Ports

Once you’ve determined that your strings are acceptable lengths for the inverter specifications, another key consideration is to ensure that the strings to have the same conditions (e.g. same azimuth/orientation, same tilt, same irradiance) if they are connected to the same inverter MPPT.

This is because mismatches in the conditions on the strings will reduce the efficiency and power output of your solar design (for a discussion of why mismatches in shading, orientation, or azimuth result in lost power output see the fourth article in our PV system losses series).

If you are designing for a site where it’s necessary to have panels on different roof faces, or some areas of the array will get more shade than others, you can ensure that the panels with different conditions are separated into their own strings, and then connect those strings to different MPPTs of the inverter (provided your chosen inverter has more than one MPPT). This will allow the inverter to ensure each string operates at the point where it produces the maximum power (its maximum power point).

3. Advanced Considerations to Optimize Your Design

The above rules will ensure that your stringing configuration will comply with the specifications of your inverter and that the energy production of the system won’t be negatively affected by mismatches in the conditions on the panels.

However, there are additional factors that a solar designer can consider to arrive at the optimal design (that is, the design that maximizes energy production while minimizing cost). These factors include inverter clipping, the use of module-level power electronics (MLPE)—devices which include microinverters and DC optimizers, and design efficiency provided by software tools.

Inverter Clipping

Sometimes it may make sense to oversize the solar array that you are connecting to the inverter leading to a theoretical maximum voltage that is slightly higher than the inverter max. This may allow your system to produce more energy (because there are more panels) when it is below its maximum voltage, in exchange for reduced (“clipped”) production during the times when the DC voltage of the array exceeds the inverter’s maximum. If the production gains exceed the production lost to inverter clipping, then you can produce more power without paying for an additional inverter or one with a higher voltage rating.

Of course, this decision should be made with care and a clear understanding of how much production will be clipped compared to how much additional production will be gained at other times. In its system loss diagram, Aurora indicates how much energy will be lost to clipping so that you can make an informed decision about whether this makes sense. For a detailed explanation of inverter clipping and when a system with inverter clipping makes sense, see our blog article on the subject.

Module-Level Power Electronics (MLPE)

String inverters are not the only inverter option. Microinverters, which are inverters that are attached to each individual panel (or a couple), allow each panel to operate at its maximum power point regardless of the conditions on other panels. In this arrangement, one need not worry about ensuring panels on the same string have the same conditions. Microinverters can also make it easier to add more panels in the future. We discuss MLPE in more detail in this article.

Explore a Few Different Options to Find the Best One

As you can see, there are many considerations when it comes to stringing your panels and finding the inverter and stringing configuration that are best for the customer. You may not arrive at the optimal design the first time around so it can be helpful to evaluate a few different options. In order for this to be efficient, however, you’ll need a process where you can evaluate multiple designs quickly, as Aurora co-founder Christopher Hopper explains in this blog post. This is where solar software can be particularly valuable.

Let Solar Software Do the Stringing For You

Finally, new technology developments like Aurora’s autostringing functionality (discussed here) can actually do the stringing for you! It will take into account the considerations discussed here and present you with an ideal stringing configuration.


Understanding the principles of solar panel wiring will enable you to ensure optimal designs for your solar customers. We hope you found this introductory primer helpful!

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Topics: solar design, Solar Primer, solar engineering

The 3 Questions Your Solar Sales Pitch Needs to Answer

Posted by Gwen Brown on May 15, 2019 8:50:21 PM

Selling solar isn’t always an easy task. But with the right framework, you can make it easier. A good framework can help you effectively address the prospect’s concerns and communicate the value of a solar installation from your company.

On May 7, 2019, in a webinar with Greentech Media, Aurora staff members Elliot Goldstein and Kenneth Williams presented practical strategies for improving your residential solar sales, based on their personal experiences selling millions of dollars in solar installations for leading U.S. solar companies.

As Elliot and Kenneth explained, there are three questions that your sales conversation should answer for every prospective customer: Why does solar make sense for them? Why is your company the best fit to install solar for them? And why they should go solar now?

Elliot and Kenneth sold millions of dollars in residential solar and share strategies to improve your solar sales.Elliot Goldstein and Kenneth Williams, the Aurora team members who presented in our May 2019 solar sales webinar with Greentech Media, have sold millions of dollars in solar working for leading solar companies in their previous roles. They share their strategies for closing more solar sales. 

It is crucial to get buy-in on these topics before you get into the cost of the system, which should be the final stage of your conversation. Elliot cautions that “If they don’t want to get away from their utility yet, you’ll price shock your customer.” But if each of these questions is answered well early on, you’re much more likely to win the customer’s business. Here’s how to tackle these topics in your sales pitch.

See how Aurora Solar software can help you close more sales in a free  consultation.

Why Solar?

For the customer that isn’t yet sure if solar is right for them, how do you delve into the value solar offers? One of the best ways to explain the value of solar is to start with an understanding of the customer’s current challenges with their electric bill.

As Kenneth Williams explains, “This is a teaching moment for you to educate your prospect on why their current situation is not sustainable. It’s best if you have their bill present or can provide some visuals for them to see how they’re using energy over the year. Before you can pitch solar as a solution with value, your prospect needs to understand they have little or no control over their current utility bill.”

Solar software like Aurora offers powerful visual tools you can use to explore your prospect’s current energy consumption with them. This can also be a good starting point for asking the customer about their motivations for considering solar and any concerns they have—so you can tailor your conversation to what they care about most.

As Kenneth explains, “If your prospect isn’t talking, you’re not closing the sale. Solar sales is really about having a great dialogue and understanding who you are speaking with and their true reasons for buying solar energy for their home.”

Depending on how much information the customer has about their electricity bills, Aurora provides a few different tools for understanding their energy use and spending, including options for uploading interval data if they have it from their utility. If they only have a few recent bills or just know how much they spent in certain months, Aurora’s bill estimator tool can model what their energy consumption likely looks like throughout the rest of the year based on typical usage profiles in their area. 

 Visuals that illustrate the customer's electricity use and spending, can be helpful in your solar sales pitch.Visuals that illustrate the customer's electricity use and spending, can be helpful in communicating the value of a solar installation. This chart from Aurora shows electricity consumption (darker orange) and charges (lighter orange) in each month. 

This can help the prospect conceptualize how much they are spending and provide a starting point for how solar can provide greater control over their energy bills. As Elliot explains, “I love this visual of their kilowatt-hour consumption and monthly cost side by side; it helps me focus their attention on the spikes in their bill.”

“I like to ask them if they’ve tried to reduce their bill in the past and how that’s worked out," says Elliot. "Many have already tried efficiency upgrades but utility rates have continued to go up as well. As a best practice, I like to pick the highest bill that they have… and calculate what that will be five years from now if the historic rate hikes of about 3 to 5% for most utilities continue.”

You can also build trust by consulting with the customer on any changes they have planned that would impact their energy usage—such as plans to purchase an electric vehicle or pool—and how solar can help them. Aurora’s Consumption Profile tool lets you explore how their bills may change in the future due to these kinds of changes.

Educating customers about the value of solar using visuals of their energy consumption is a useful sales tip.Aurora's consumption portal has interactive tools to understand the customer's energy usage under different scenarios, such as if they purchase an electric vehicle.

Throughout the process, keep that dialogue going and be sure to ask clarifying questions to make sure you’re really understanding the customer’s priorities, goals, and concerns.

Why Your Company?

In addition to communicating the value solar can offer to the customer—you also need to answer the question of why they should choose your company. How do you communicate what makes your company stand out from the pack in a competitive industry where many homeowners are getting several different solar quotes?

You’ll certainly want to emphasize the products and services that make your company unique. Is your customer satisfaction off the charts? Are you using more efficient panels or offering a great warranty?

However, with many companies offering similar products, a key differentiator is trust. As the salesperson, you play a key role in communicating how your company will ensure that the solar installation—and the resulting savings they receive—live up to expectations.

As Elliot explains, “Using advanced [solar] software can build that trust in WHY your numbers are accurate. Anyone can make up an estimate that looks good…. but if you can show why your numbers have a solid foundation and why your quote is less likely to change after they sign a contract, that’s one way to leave a lasting impression when your customer is likely to get 3-5 bids.”

Designing in Aurora gives you a number of tools to ensure that your proposed solar design—and the resulting energy production and bill savings—are accurate, and giving the customer a walk-through of some of these tools can help them see firsthand the precision and attention to detail that you’re putting into their proposal.

Some of these features of your design process that you may want to highlight for the customer include:

  • Your precise 3D model of their house that ensures panels will fit as anticipated and that the design will look the way they expect it to.
  • Aurora’s accurate, NREL-validated shading analysis, including the visually striking irradiance map of their home that can help communicate the best places for panels
  • The ability to configure setbacks based on the requirements of their local jurisdiction, which ensure you won’t have to redo their design because of setback violations
  • And the precision of Aurora’s energy production and bill estimates.
Want the full webinar's worth of solar sales tips?  Watch the recorded webinar here! 
Powerful solar design tools like Aurora can set your company apart in the solar sales process. A precise 3D model of the customer's home with their solar design and locally required setbacks, is one way to help them understand the strong design processes that differentiate your company. 

Why Now?

A final question you need to satisfactorily answer for the customer is why it makes sense to go solar now. To do this, you need to build a sense of urgency with the customer. That could be rooted in their own plans and goals or in external factors.

Kenneth advises, “This is where a lot of what you learned from the dialogue with the customer is going to come in handy. Depending on their goals for going solar, they may have their own factors that create a natural sense of urgency so it can help to put things in those terms. Is summer coming up and they’re really trying to avoid those high summer spiking electricity bills? Are they in the process of buying an EV?”

Elliot adds, “You can also use external factors, like utility rate increases, to underscore why going solar now may be better than waiting. Many people also know about the Investment Tax Credit stepping down or NEM capping out, and that is creating real urgency this year.”

Educating your customer on the value of getting grandfathered into a net metering plan, can also help—particularly if they’re concerned about waiting for technology to improve. If a robust net metering rate is available to your customer, getting access to that now may result in better financial return over the life of their system than waiting, particularly if the utility is considering future rate changes that will reduce the value of solar.

Limited-time promotions and discounts can also build urgency, but Elliot cautions that you should use them wisely. “I see many reps start using these as crutches and end up giving away their commission and the company’s profit. If you’ve built perceived value in your brand, most homeowners are willing to pay more to get quality. I recommend only using discounts to push your sale to close quickly at the end once your customer is bought into you and your company.”

An effective solar sales strategy will communicate 1) why solar 2) why your company, and 3) why now.
An effective solar sales process communicates 1) why solar makes sense (assuming it does for the customer, of course!), 2) why they should choose your company, and 3) why now is a good time to install.
 
While there are many sales strategies you can employ to close more sales, framing your sales pitch around these three questions—Why Solar? Why Your Company? And Why Now?—will ensure you answer the fundamental things your customer needs to agree on before they’ll be comfortable moving forward.

For more detailed insights on this framework, and many more tips for improving your sales of residential solar, check out the full webinar presentation!

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What else is important to cover in the solar sales conversation? What strategies have you found success with? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Topics: Solar Sales

NABCEP Executive Director Highlights New Developments

Posted by Gwen Brown on Apr 12, 2019 9:09:24 PM

As one of the most widely respected professional certification programs for the solar industry, the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, more commonly known as NABCEP, plays an important role in establishing industry standards.

Fresh off our recent attendance at the NABCEP Continuing Education conference in San Diego earlier this month, Aurora had the opportunity to speak with Shawn O’Brien, NABCEP’s Executive Director.

Following up on our interview last year, our conversation explored recent developments in NABCEPs recertification requirements, trends that are being considered for future NABCEP program changes, and a recent grant NABCEP is involved in to help military veterans transition into solar careers.

Shawn_O'Brien_headshot_LINABCEP Executive Director Shawn O'Brien

Aurora Solar: NABCEP is changing its requirements for recertification. What’s changing, and how do these new requirements reflect changes in the solar industry?

Shawn O’Brien: Some of the changes stem from the fact that the roles of individuals who previously obtained NABCEP certification have changed over the time that they've been in the industry. We recently conducted a survey that found that 26% of respondents opened up their own companies after getting their NABCEP certification. That underscores that roles really have changed; a lot of folks are no longer on the roof.

Because of that, it’s not always possible for them to pull permits or get documentation to show that they've directly done installations. The Board has recognized that the industry as a whole is changing, as are the roles of individuals.

What the board has done in the new recertification requirements is allow individuals to show other achievements that demonstrate that they're actively involved in the industry.

For instance, instead of requiring three completed installations, certificants can submit a letter from their employer on company letterhead confirming that they are still actively involved in the renewable energy industry and describing their role. That can include holding a leadership role in an organization that's doing solar design, commissioning, maintenance, inspection, or another role like financing projects.

We also have a lot of certificants who are full-time trainers, if they can show over a three year period that they've done 120 hours of full-time training that is another way to meet the industry involvement requirement.

Of course, for people who are installing, they still have the option to use their completed installations in their recertification process. But the industry is growing up and it's time to recognize that not everyone is up on the roof, there are much more diverse roles.

Additionally, in accordance with certification best practices, part of recertification involves making sure that the individual is maintaining current knowledge in the industry. For this reason, we require a certain number of continuing education hours. Another notable change to NABCEP’s recertification requirements is that we are now requiring 30 hours of continuing education during that three year recertification period, up from 18 previously.

Aurora: What are some other industry trends that NABCEP is taking into account as it updates its programs?

O’Brien: Two trends we’re thinking about are the growth of commercial and industrial projects and the trend towards solar plus storage.

NABCEP originally started as a certification for residential solar installers. We want to make sure that NABCEP's certifications require the same level of expertise in commercial projects as those on a residential level, and that they provide the same assurance for the customer if they're a CFO instead of a homeowner. So we're also looking at certification requirements to make sure that the individuals being evaluated have that knowledge as well and not just residential.

The other development we are thinking about is solar plus storage. Historically NABCEP certificants have been evaluated mainly just on the installation of solar, not so much on storage.

These two industry trends require thought to ensure that individuals who are certified can work in those areas safely and effectively.

Aurora: In partnership with several other organizations including the Solar Foundation and SEIA, NABCEP won a $2 million grant from the DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office to support military veterans in transitioning into solar careers. What are the key initiatives under this grant and how will NABCEP be involved?

O’Brien: Yes, NABCEP is a sub-awardee on this grant; the prime grantee is The Solar Foundation. The program will focus on creating opportunities that help military veterans transition into careers in the solar industry. The awardees will be working on developing training and employment matchmaking for recent veterans.

In my opinion, the key is to create a sustainable work program that allows veterans and active military personnel to find employment in the solar industry that matches and complements the knowledge, skills, and abilities that they developed in the military.

It's very important that you don't just "find" veterans of the active military jobs. That would be easy to do. What we want to do is show them a pathway to a career. That's NABCEP's main goal; we don't want to get them into something that they're going to just do for three years. It's getting them on a path so that, for example, a few years after completing this program, they can become the owner of an installation company, a design company, an engineering company, whatever the case may be.

There are several things that NABCEP will be doing under this grant. First, NABCEP will be working to get all of our certifications registered so that veterans will be able to use GI Bill funds to pay for them. We already have two certifications registered, and we will be working to get all of the other six eligible for the GI Bill.

Another thing NABCEP will be doing is working with the cohort of over 200 community colleges and universities that are NABCEP-registered training providers. We will work with them to establish military-friendly programs that help veterans when they get into the community college or university.

Another big focus for NABCEP is creating what we're calling a "fast track" for veterans and military personnel, allowing them to see use their Military Occupational Specialties, which reflect the training that they took in the military, to get NABCEP certified faster.

Lastly, we’ll be then registering all our programs with something they call Army COOL, Credentialing Opportunities Online (or Navy COOL, etc.—they have it for all branches of the military). It’s an online certification system for active military. And we plan to offer the training and certification bundled together. We'll be working to create those bundles for active military members, so they can get the training and certification prior to actually separating from the service.

Aurora: What would you like solar companies to know about this initiative? How can they get involved?

O’Brien: The best way for solar companies to get involved is to respond when they see the calls going out about apprenticeships and employment matching, and to be open to helping to establish partnerships or work with us on matching for employment.

At the next NABCEP conference, we will have programming geared towards hiring veterans. There's a lot of literature out there that employers are apprehensive about hiring and interviewing combat veterans. So there are a lot of ways that solar companies can make a difference by educating their hiring managers on working with veterans.

Topics: Solar Spotlight

Using Computer Vision for Remote Solar Site Measurements

Posted by Gwen Brown on Mar 22, 2019 11:43:56 AM

When designing a solar project for a prospective customer, you know it’s important to get the details right. That helps ensure that the design you propose to them is the design that actually gets installed—without the need for costly and time-consuming design changes, as might be the case if you thought that more panels would fit on a particular part of their roof, for instance.

But, in the increasingly competitive solar industry, speed is also of the essence. You need to follow up as soon as possible to maximize your chances of winning the customer’s business. That means that driving to the site and taking manual measurements may not be practical, particularly if the customer is far away. (Not to mention, you could save time and money by avoiding the trip.)

It’s this very challenge that Aurora was founded to solve, and we’ve been hard at work developing many new software technologies that make it possible for solar contractors to accurately design solar installations without the site visit, from NREL-validated remote shading analysis to providing access to LIDAR data and crisp aerial imagery to cutting-edge roof drawing tools.

This month, Aurora is excited to announce a new tool that gives solar contractors another way to get accurate measurements of elements of the project site: Street View Ruler.  

Aurora’s Street View Ruler makes it easy to take site measurements without actually being at the site, so you can ensure that you can fit as many panels as expected and that the pitch of the roof is what you think it is (this can affect how much energy your PV system produces).

Aurora Solar supports both residential and commercial solar design and sales.  Learn more in a free demo.

Street View Ruler

The Street View Ruler leverages computer vision, or the use of computers to interpret images. As we discussed in our overview of computer vision and how Aurora uses it to improve the solar design process, one application of computer vision is to calculate measurements using multiple images of a site.

This new tool, which builds upon prior advances by the Aurora computer vision team, offers a simple and easy-to-use method for taking accurate measurements of the project site from the comfort of your desk.

Behind the scenes, the computer vision approach that the Street View Ruler uses is the mathematical process of triangulation. Commonly used in nautical navigation, triangulation allows you to determine the distance to an object if you know the direction from two known locations.

In this case, satellite imagery and Street View imagery provide the two different views of a site. Because these imagery sources include the camera positions and angles, measurements can then be extracted from the images.

With this tool, solar designers can measure distances—like the height of a tree or width of a roof face—and slopes—like the pitch of a roof. To do so, the designer identifies the points they want to measure, in two different images of the site: the Street View image and a top-down satellite or aerial image. By indicating to Aurora which points correspond to each other in the images from two different angles, Aurora’s computer vision engine can perform triangulation and generate an accurate measurement.

See how Aurora helps solar companies grow revenue, cut costs, and impress their  customers!

Key Features

Several teams worked together to develop this tool. Our UI/UX (user interface/user experience) team worked to create a workflow that would be intuitive and minimize chances for confusion, while our Front End engineers Carl Olsson and Kelly Stevens worked to create the tool using the computer vision measurement functionality that our computer vision team had developed.

In-App Instructions

As you use the Street View Ruler, prompts on the screen guide you through the process. This makes it faster to learn and helps to minimize the chance of missing a step that would impact your measurement.

Aurora Solar's Street View Ruler has instructions that guides users through the processAs you use the Street View Ruler, prompts guide you through the process to ensure correct usage.

Numbered Points to Match Street View and Top-Down Measurements

Numbered points make it easy to ensure that you’re lining up the points correctly between the Street View image and the top-down satellite/aerial view of the site.

Aurora Solar's Street View Ruler has numbered points to line up measurements from different perspectivesTo allow Aurora’s Street View Ruler to take measurements using triangulation, place each numbered point on the spots you would like to measure in both top-down and street-level views of the project site.

Camera Animations Offer Enhanced Visualization

Another feature of the tool is camera animations in which Aurora automatically aligns the 3D view of your site model with the perspective of the Street View camera once you’ve taken your measurements.

Aurora Solar's Street View Ruler rotates the perspective of the solar project site after measurements are completed. Once the measurement is complete, Aurora automatically rotates the view of your project site to match the street-level view, allowing you to get a better sense of the area you measured.

As Carl Olsson, one of the software engineers who built the Street View Ruler, explains, “Once you're done creating a measurement, the top-down camera view will rotate to the direction of the street view camera. I think that makes it easier for users to understand the measurement they've just created and how it correlates with the Street View.”


Street View Ruler is another tool in your toolkit for ensuring accuracy and precision in your solar designs for customers while saving time by minimizing the need for time-consuming and costly visits to the site during the design stage. Let us know in the comments below how you’re using the Street View Ruler!

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Topics: solar design, technology, computer vision

Solar for New Construction: Solutions to Enter a Key Emerging Market

Posted by Gwen Brown on Mar 4, 2019 12:51:59 PM

Traditionally, for rooftop solar installations, solar is added on to an existing building. But a vast new solar market is emerging in recent years: solar for new construction.

In fact, in California alone—where the state building code will require solar on all new homes starting in 2020—solar demand is expected to increase by over 800 MW from 2020-2023 due to this market. This regulatory trend is not just limited to California, however.

Cities from Arizona to Florida have made similar solar requirements. Watertown, Massachusetts moved to require solar on new commercial buildings larger than 10,000 square feet and all new residential structures with ten or more units. Other jurisdictions may roll out similar policies as cities and states around the country make increasingly aggressive commitments to clean energy.

This is great news for solar contractors. But to access this new class of customers, solar contractors need new solar design and sales strategies. Traditional methods tailored to existing buildings fall short in several key ways.

In this article, we highlight the ways that solar design for new construction differs from traditional solar design. We also share real strategies and tools for designing and selling stunning solar arrays for new buildings—whether residential or commercial—so you can confidently pursue opportunities in this new market segment.

See how your solar contracting business can work smarter with Aurora.

How is Solar Design for New Construction Different from Traditional Solar Design?

Designing solar for a building that’s not yet built differs from traditional solar design in three key ways.

  1. Without an existing building, it can be difficult to know how many solar panels will fit on the roof or other parts of the site and determine the best location for the array.
  2. To determine how much energy the solar installation will produce—and whether solar is even a viable option—it is critical to understand how much shade will fall on different parts of the site. This assessment is complicated by the lack of an existing building.
  3. Finally, without imagery of an existing building, salespeople need new options to communicate to the customer what the solar design will look like.

Fortunately, there are solar software tools contractors can utilize to overcome these barriers.

Designing Solar for New Construction: Overcoming the Challenges

Let’s explore the three critical differences in solar design and sales for new construction versus existing buildings, and the solutions solar contractors can employ to enter this new market.

Challenge 1: Determining the Appropriate PV System Size and Location

How do you determine the best locations for solar panels and the number that will fit on a roof when the building you’ll put them on doesn’t exist yet? Naturally, traditional approaches based on on-site measurements or remote site assessment using satellite imagery are not an option.

Fortunately, with the right solar software solar contractors can import roof plans or blueprints to serve as the basis of creating a virtual 3D model of the project site. With an accurate site model, contractors can easily determine how many solar panels will fit on different roof faces and get a better sense of where it would make sense to locate an array.

Aurora solar design software allows users to import roof plans and blueprints which can be used to design a solar array. Aurora Solar allows you to import roof plans of a future building, scale them to an accurate size, and situate them on the property. From there, it’s easy to create an accurate 3D model of the building on which to design a solar installation and accurately estimate it’s energy production. This allows solar contractors to enter the fast-growing market of solar for new homes and buildings.

In Aurora’s solar software, solar contractors can upload the roof plan as an image and then scale it to the correct size based on the specified dimensions in the building plan. Since there is not yet an address for most of these new construction sites, the contractor can input the geographic coordinates of the project to situate it in the actual location where it will be built.

One of the things Aurora Solar has pioneered that makes this process much simpler is SmartRoof, a design tool that infers the 3D structure of a building based on the 2D outline of the roof. Adjustments can be made to ensure the inferences match the roof plan, but the manual work needed to create an accurate 3D model on which to design the solar array is significantly reduced.

SmartRoof, a tool from Aurora Solar, makes it easier for solar contractors to create models of their project sites.Aurora’s SmartRoof tool infers the 3D structure of a roof based on its perimeter, streamlining the solar design process.

Additionally, Aurora’s ruler tool—which provides measurements of different parts of the project and site model—makes it easy to double-check that the site model matches the construction plans.

See how Aurora helps solar companies grow revenue, cut costs, and impress their  customers!

Challenge 2: Assessing shading and solar access values

Perhaps the biggest challenge of designing a solar installation for a building that has not yet been constructed is getting an accurate understanding of how much solar energy will be available on different parts of the roof or surrounding property.

As we explain in our blog post on how irradiance is calculated, any structure that may cast a shadow at any time throughout the year—from a chimney to a nearby tree—can impact the solar irradiance on the site. Without accurate solar access values and shade measurements, you cannot accurately estimate how much energy the solar installation will produce. Fortunately, Aurora makes it simple to accurately calculate all of these values.

 An example of an irradiance map, generated by Aurora. Brighter colors indicate greater solar irradiance. An example of an irradiance map, generated by Aurora. Brighter colors indicate greater solar irradiance.

Because geographic coordinates are used to situate the site model in its real future location, you can review satellite imagery of the property to identify and model trees and surrounding objects that may impact the amount of sunlight that reaches the roof. Additionally, actual local weather data is used in simulating how much energy the system will produce.

With the creation of a precise 3D model of the future building and other features of the project site, Aurora can simulate the movement of shadows on the site for every hour of the year and give precise irradiance values for each part of the site. This approach allows you to be confident in the accuracy of your energy production and utility bill savings estimates for the project.

Challenge 3: Visually showcase the solar design for the buyer

A further challenge of designing solar for new construction applies at the sales stage. How do you show the customer what the design will look like? The aesthetics of the solar design are likely to be a significant concern for the prospective customer, especially in the residential market.

An example of a 3D model of a future home as rendered in Aurora solar software. These kinds of visuals can help the customer understand what your solar design will look like.An example of a 3D model of a future home as rendered in Aurora solar software. These kinds of visuals can help the customer understand what your solar design will look like and feel more comfortable knowing how it will impact the aesthetics of the building.

As the home construction and solar markets intersect in California—where new homes will be required to have solar starting in 2020—other players like architects and home builders will also need tools to present solar information including the appearance of the building.

To see how Aurora makes this easy, sign up for a free demo to see the software in action!

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Without being able to visualize how solar will affect the appearance of their future building, the customer may be more hesitant about a solar purchase. Fortunately, creating a realistic 3D model of the project and site makes it easy to showcase and sell your solar design.

Aurora offers a variety of compelling and customizable solar sales proposal templates. You can include a variety of different views of the solar project to help them feel at ease with the appearance of the project you’ve designed.

Building upon the approaches we pioneered to enable accurate remote solar design, Aurora Solar is delivering solutions that let solar contractors effectively serve the emerging solar market for new buildings.

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 To learn more about solar design for new construction, with live demonstrations of the processes discussed above, join our webinar with PV Magazine on March 20, 2019 at 10AM Pacific Standard Time/1PM Eastern Standard Time!

Upcoming Webinar March 20, 2019: Solar Design for New Construction with PV Magazine 
You can also check out our past webinar with Solar Power World, which explores this topic from the perspective of California’s Title 24 mandate of solar on new homes.

Topics: solar design, Solar for New Construction

NEXTracker CEO Dan Shugar Talks Innovation, Solar’s Evolution, and More

Posted by Gwen Brown on Feb 20, 2019 12:13:59 PM

Dan Shugar, founder and CEO of solar tracking company NEXTracker, has had an illustrious career. Despite the tumultuousness of the solar industry, Shugar has led numerous companies to great success—across sectors as diverse as C&I solar installation and module and tracker manufacturing. Add to that the fact that he has seen the industry’s growth and evolution firsthand since the 1980s, and it’s clear that Shugar has a wealth of industry insights.

Dan Shugar, CEO of NEXTracker and solar industry starAfter starting his career as a transmission planner at California utility PG&E, Shugar transitioned to PG&E’s R&D department in 1988 where his passion for photovoltaics was ignited. He was fascinated by the idea that something with no moving parts could produce energy with just the light of the sun. He later led research that demonstrated how solar could offer benefits to the electric grid—which contributed to the development of net metering policies.

Shugar went on to serve as President of PowerLight Corporation—which became the largest commercial installer in the U.S.—and then President of SunPower, which acquired PowerLight in 2007. He served as CEO of PV manufacturer Solaria prior to founding NEXTracker in 2013.

Aurora Solar Content Marketer Gwen Brown and Chief of Staff Sunny Wang had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Shugar at NEXTracker’s offices in Fremont, California. Read on to hear Shugar’s thoughts on how solar business dynamics have evolved, where innovation can further reduce the cost of solar, and how to build a successful company and innovative team!

Aurora Solar: Having been involved in solar since the early days of the industry, you’ve seen a lot of change and maturation. What do you see as some of the most notable ways that the business dynamics of solar have changed as the industry has evolved?

Shugar: The analogy I like to use is that you can think of the evolution of the solar industry as similar to how the automobile industry evolved. In the early days, when I was at PowerLight, our approach was kind of like Henry Ford.

Dan Shugar Quote- Pick Your ShotsWhen the automobile industry was super immature, it was characterized by thousands of manufacturers and unreliable, expensive products—sort of a mom-and-pop type industry. What Henry Ford did was create a standardized product and a standardized production system with few options. He radically reduced costs, improved reliability, and made the technology more prevalent through a vertically integrated model.

That's similar to where we were at PowerLight, circa 1996 through 2007. We had a vertically integrated approach. The logic of heavy vertical integration made a lot of sense back then, because the industry was in a very early place.

Today, the industry's at a real scale and vertical integration no longer makes sense. You can't be best in the world at everything when the industry is huge. Instead of making every component like Henry Ford did, modern car companies make a few components. They're really focused on overall product design, brand, marketing, financing, etc. But then they have, for instance, an electronics company making the radios and a tire company making the tires and so forth, and they bring that together.

The solar industry today, is coming to a similar point. With more companies specializing in specific areas, it doesn’t make sense to have precious management attention and capital spread over too many things. I think you need to pick your shots.

Be best in the world at one or a couple things, but don’t try to be best at everything. You can't be the best O&M company, the best manufacturer, the best developer, and do all those things at the same time.

Dan Shugar, CEO of NEXTracker, discussing the company's technology. Photo of Dan Shugar, courtesy of NEXTracker. 

Aurora: What areas of innovation do you think the industry should double-down on, or start exploring, to further drive down the cost of deploying solar energy?

Shugar: We've been really focused on software for that purpose. I love the idea that without building more hardware you can get more energy out of the system. As an environmentalist, I want the most to come out of every system that gets deployed.

At NEXTracker, we’ve commercialized an adaptive tracking algorithm that is really moving the needle from a yield standpoint on the software side. The gains aren't giant numbers—it's not going to double yield—but with our TrueCapture technology, we can achieve 2 to 6% yield improvement for typical sites. That is actually a huge amount if you're doing structured finance projects.

Part of how that is accomplished is by optimizing yield on cloudy days, when you can actually produce 15-20% more energy by orienting the panels upward instead of tracking conventionally. We also developed improvements for undulating terrain. Instead of having all the trackers move in parallel like a Venetian blind—what we commercialized 20 years ago—we developed a way to have each row optimally change based on its geospatial position within the plant, using embedded sensors that establish its position relative to its neighbor. That can generate a lot more energy on an undulating site.

Just in the context of the fleet that we’ve delivered, these yield improvements are the equivalent of shutting down a couple coal plants worth of energy! I think even more can be done across the whole software category to wring more energy out of PV systems.

A utility-scale solar plant using NEXTracker technology. Photo courtesy of NEXTracker. 

Aurora: Early in your career, you co-authored research that demonstrated how siting solar in strategic locations on the grid could deliver cost savings to utilities. These findings contributed to the development of net metering policies. Even today, however, the idea that solar hurts utility profits or shifts costs to non-solar customers persists. What do you think it will take to overcome this misconception?

Shugar: Yes, we proved that PV distributed in the grid can provide a lot of benefits. The research was part of a national solar research project by the U.S. Department of Energy, co-funded by a number of utilities, called Photovoltaic for Utility-Scale Applications (PV USA). We were able to empirically document the benefits solar provides to the grid when it's distributed at strategic locations.1

In terms of how we overcome misconceptions about solar’s benefits, if you look at the majority of solar being installed, which is utility scale or community solar, solar is about half the average cost of all other main forms of generation in sunny areas. We're massively lowering the cost of wholesale power, saving consumers tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars annually. We need to get that message out better.

Dan Shugar Quote- Lowering Cost of PowerOne way we're doing this is through a national solar and wind job campaign tour we launched a year and a half ago, A Renewable America, with the Wind Solar Alliance. We've been doing a series of on-the-ground events, highlighting the jobs that have been created, and the savings and energy independence that solar and wind are providing customers. So it's a very concrete, tangible thing. 

Aurora: Something you’ve mentioned in the past as critical to a company’s success is the strength of the team and creating a dynamic that encourages innovation. What practices do you incorporate on a regular basis to cultivate that dynamic in the companies you’ve run?

Shugar: First, in terms of team dynamic, I think being really transparent with the mission of the company is key—why we're here, why we're all putting our energies in. It's got to be bigger than just making money. For us, it's always been mainstreaming solar.

From there, it’s important to define common goals and communicate them clearly so the team can align around them. In terms of processes at NEXTacker, and my prior companies, we do periodic strategic off-sites where we define what we want to accomplish in the coming year, and break that down into a quarterly cadence.

We share those objectives really actively with all staff and each person has their own milestone system that defines what they're working on—they generate that. A benefit of that is that it engenders a valuable dialogue with their supervisor. Having that kind of framework is really helpful, especially as companies scale.

With respect to innovation, you must encourage people to take risks and try new things. We have an ethos at the company where folks know you’ve got their back. If somebody tries something new and it doesn't work, that's okay.

Additionally, allowing organic creation of ideas from anybody within the organization is really important, as well as expanding the universe in which ideas come from—especially to include customers.

We ask customers for feedback all the time. "What do you think of the product? What are your ideas? How would you like it improved? What other features and attributes would you like to see?" We really listen to what they say and evaluate those ideas. Some ideas won't work, but some will. I could show our product and point to specific features that came from customers. And we go back to the customer and acknowledge them.

Shugar Quote- Organic Creation of IdeasWe also try to think strategically about how to strip out extraneous elements. Fundamentally, we're trying to generate more energy at the lowest possible cost with the highest amount of reliability. Anything not contributing to that should go, and features that can enhance that goal should be brought in.

It doesn't matter if you're doing roof systems or ground mounted systems—having that kind of culture and format for ideas has worked across a variety of platforms.

Aurora: Given the many successful companies you’ve been a part of, are there any lessons for success you've learned that you would like to share with our readers?

Shugar: A lot of it, I think, is just being very practical, keeping it real. For me, that starts with having a mission, like “we want solar to be the largest source of power,” and being able to articulate that.

Shugar Quote- Relationships with CustomersFrom there, it's about finding a way to add value to the customer and building an awesome team that's mission-focused, to be able to deliver that value to the customer. It’s about making sure you do the basics super well.

In terms of having a functional team, you need a process by which issues are put forward. We have a expression "bad news now." We want to know what the real issues are and not conceal them but rather deal with them—whether it's on the team or the product or the financial status of something. We want to address that practically and be able to manage expectations with the customer and follow through on our commitments.

I'm really passionate about relationships with customers and being honest. If there's a problem with the product, or the schedule, or the delivery, be super upfront about what those issues are, and customers are generally understanding. 

Aurora: In addition to your day job, you’re also a musician and you and your band Groovity perform around the Bay Area (and in the 2018 Solar Battle of the Bands at Intersolar)! How did this come about?

Shugar: The backstory about how I got into music is that, when I was 16, I indicated to my father that I was interested in learning how to play guitar. His response was "Get in the car, we're going to the music store."

Shugar Quote- Company is Like a BandIt was just a basic guitar he got me, but what I took from that is when people indicate interest in something—I did this with my kids—you try to make it available. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it doesn't work out. But once in a while it does. For me, music has been a source of great joy and satisfaction, and an opportunity to relate to people on a different level. It's a lot of fun.

Music brings people together. That's what we were trying to accomplish at Intersolar 2018, and I think we got it done.

For me, having a great company is really like having a band—there's a direct analogy. Because you want to give every person space to contribute and you want to be really listening to what's happening.

I think the thing that works most in our band is that everyone's really carefully listening. That allows a fundamental structure but a high degree of improvisation that happens live, adapting as you go. When it's time to say something, you say it but then you pull back and let other people contribute and that makes the band—or company—that much more powerful. And it keeps it really interesting. 

 Groovity performs at Solar Battle of the Bands 2018. Photo courtesy of NEXTracker.  Groovity performs at Solar Battle of the Bands 2018. Photo courtesy of NEXTracker. 

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Dan Shugar, Sunny Wang, and Gwen Brown at NEXTracker on the day of this interview. Dan Shugar with Gwen Brown, Aurora Content Marketer, and Sunny Wang, Aurora Chief of Staff, at the NEXTracker offices. 

1 Shugar added: “It's also a fact that we were so successful in California that we actually have over ten gigawatts of solar and have changed the shape of the load curve of the fifth largest economy in the world. There’s still a lot of correlation in California, but it's less perfect than when we conducted our research.”


Please note that the views expressed in our Solar Spotlight interviews are those of the interviewee, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Aurora Solar.

Topics: Solar Spotlight

Key Solar Industry Trends From The 2018 Solar Jobs Census

Posted by Gwen Brown on Feb 15, 2019 12:44:11 PM

The 2018 National Solar Jobs Census, released this week, reaffirms an oft-cited benefit of the solar industry—that solar is a major job creator. As of late 2018 are 242,343 solar workers in the U.S., meaning that the solar industry employs more people than any other energy sector other than oil and gas. Between 2013 and 2018, solar jobs grew at a rate six times faster than the overall U.S. economy.

The results weren’t all rosy, however. For the second year in a row, total employment in the solar industry has declined slightly, after seven years of growth. The Solar Census reports that uncertainty over whether the federal government would impose tariffs on imported solar components (which led to delays of many projects) contributed to the decline, as did policy changes and economic challenges in some established state solar markets.

Despite these recent challenges, more than half of states in the U.S. added solar jobs. Additionally, the report paints a bright picture for the future of the solar industry, with survey respondents reporting an expected increase in hiring in the coming year. It also overs valuable insights on hiring trends in the solar industry, industry demographics, and more.

The National Solar Jobs Census is an analysis of employment in the U.S. conducted annually by The Solar Foundation. It is the most rigorous and comprehensive review of its kind, based on an extensive survey of solar industry employers. We delve into its 2018 findings and what you need to know about the current state of the solar market in the U.S.!

See how your solar contracting business can work smarter with Aurora.

Solar Jobs 2018: The Big Picture

In 2018, solar employment declined by 3.2%—or 8000 jobs across the country. In addition to uncertainty about tariffs resulting in postponed projects, contraction in some states with historically strong solar markets contributed to the decline.

It’s important to keep these losses in context, however. Since the first Solar Jobs Census in 2010, the solar workforce has added nearly 150,000 jobs—growth of 159% percent. And between 2013 and 2018 solar employment increased 70% (100,000 jobs), compared to 9.13% job growth in the U.S. economy overall.

Additionally, the solar industry outlook for 2019 and beyond is positive. Based on the survey results, solar jobs are expected to increase by 7 percent in 2019, bringing the total to 259,400 jobs.

Installed PV costs by solar industry sector compared to the number of U.S. solar jobs each year. Installed PV costs by solar industry sector (residential, commercial, and utility-scale) compared to annual solar industry employment numbers. Source: 2018 National Solar Jobs Census.

Where Solar Jobs Were Gained and Lost

States with the largest job reductions included California (-9,576 jobs), Massachusetts (-1,320), North Carolina (-903), Arizona (-857), Maryland (-808), New Jersey (-696), Georgia (-614), and Hawaii (-595).

In California, which still remains the state with the most solar jobs despite significant declines, there were a number of factors at play. The Census cites reduced pressure on utilities to meet their clean energy goals because they have already made significant progress, as well as uncertainty over rate structures for non-residential solar customers.

California did implement a number of notable pro-solar policies in 2018, such as mandating solar on all new homes and committing to 100% renewable energy. While 2018 was too early to see the impact of these policies, they bode well for stronger growth in the coming years.

In Massachusetts, policy uncertainty prior to the release of the state’s new Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program, a successor to its SREC program, contributed to the decline. However, once the new program was launched in September of 2018, there was a rush of new applications—a positive sign

On the bright side, 29 states saw solar job growth. Among the states that experienced the most solar job growth are Florida (+1,769 jobs), Illinois (+1,308), Texas (+739), New York (+718), Ohio (+644), and Washington (+612). The report highlights contributing factors in different states such as Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act, which includes an Adjustable Block Program to support distributed energy systems and community solar projects, and Nevada’s reinstated net metering policy in 2017. In states like Texas without relevant policy changes falling cost of installations were a contributor to solar industry growth.

Increase or decrease in solar jobs in 2018 by state. Source: 2018 National Solar Jobs Census. Increase or decrease in solar jobs in 2018 by state. Source: 2018 National Solar Jobs Census

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Other Notable Findings

The 2018 Solar Jobs Census also provides valuable insights on how solar jobs are distributed across different sectors and what the demographics of the solar industry are. It also provides insights on the hiring experiences of companies—such as how difficult it is to fill positions and what qualifications employers are looking for.

What Sectors are Solar Jobs In?

The solar installation and project development sector employs two-thirds of solar workers, with 155,000 solar jobs. Of these, 56% percent (87,000) focus on residential solar compared to commercial and other non-residential solar (including community solar), which employs 30% (46,000). The remaining 14% of jobs are in the utility-scale sector (87,000).

Manufacturing employs 14% of solar industry workers, while operations and maintenance (O&M) employs about 5%. The “other” category—including engineering, legal, and financing companies—also employs about 5% of solar industry professionals.

 

Percentage of solar jobs by industry sector.  by Source: 2018 National Solar Jobs Census.Percentage of solar jobs by industry sector.  by Source: 2018 National Solar Jobs Census.

What Are the Demographics of the Solar industry

The Solar Foundation also built upon its past efforts to highlight diversity needs in solar with an update on industry demographics. In 2018, they report, the solar industry was more diverse than other comparable industries, but still not representative of the overall population.

Women represented 26.3% of solar industry workers. Latino or Hispanic workers represented 16.9%, Asian workers comprised 8.5%, and black or African American workers comprised 7.6%. Veterans represented 7.8% of industry workers, a decline from 8.6% in 2017.

Solar Hiring Trends

In 2017, many solar employers reported difficulty finding qualified workers and in 2018 that was even more of a challenge. Twenty-six percent of companies reported that it is “very difficult” to fill open positions with qualified employees, an increase of 44% from 2018. The greatest hiring difficulty was in the installation and project development sector.

In terms of what employers are looking for in job candidates, experience was the most common requirement, reported by 60% of companies (up from 55% in 2017). The Census also reports that solar industry wages are competitive with similar industries, with a median wage of $18.12.

Reasons for hiring difficulty reported by solar industry employers. Source: 2018 National Solar Jobs Census.
Reasons for hiring difficulty reported by solar industry employers. Source: 2018 National Solar Jobs Census.

The solar industry is playing an important role in the U.S. economy, delivering new well-paying job opportunities while helping to tackle the critical impacts of climate change. With positive projections for 2019 industry growth, we look forward to the industry getting back on track and installing even more clean energy. The 2018 Solar Jobs Census is chock full of many more insights than we could cover in the blog post—download the full report here to learn more!

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Topics: Solar Jobs

Using Aurora to Solve the Mystery of an Underperforming PV System

Posted by Gwen Brown on Feb 1, 2019 6:31:39 PM

An underperforming solar PV system is a solar customer’s nightmare. With a big investment like solar, customers want to know that their PV system is producing as much energy as forecasted and they’re getting their money’s worth.

Unfortunately for a residential customer in Cathedral City, California, for unknown reasons, their system was consistently producing less energy than expected. Fortunately, their system was monitored by Omnidian, a solar operations and maintenance (O&M) firm that is dedicated to managing the performance of solar systems.

Omnidian remotely monitors solar system performance and interprets the data with its proprietary software to identify systems that are experiencing problems–as it did in this case–and coordinates field service work with local service partners where needed.

To determine what has gone wrong in these cases, “the industry often responds with an initial truck roll to go out to the site to investigate what's going on,” explains Omnidian Chief Operating Officer David Kenny. But truck rolls can be costly, so if there were a way to remotely identify the problem and determine the necessary service before sending someone out, reaching a resolution could be more efficient and affordable.

To this end, Omnidian turned to Aurora’s simulation tools to determine if it would be possible to remotely diagnose the cause of this system’s underproduction. In this article, we explore how Aurora’s software allowed Omnidian to identify design flaws and make adjustments that significantly increased energy production.

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Remote Diagnostics with Aurora

Most users know Aurora for solar design and sales software that makes it possible to remotely design a solar system, accurately forecast its energy production, and estimate the monetary value of that production. In this case, however, Aurora’s simulation engine–which calculates how much energy a PV system will produce based on its design and location–would be used to retroactively determine why there was such a discrepancy between actual and predicted production.

To do this, the project site was first modeled precisely in Aurora. An accurate 3D model of the project site is essential to determining how much energy a PV system will produce because it provides the basis for determining the amount of shade that will fall on the modules at different times throughout the year.

The PV system was then recreated in Aurora according to how it was installed–with the same module and inverter specifications, panel placement, and stringing configuration. The existing system consisted of 30 modules and two string inverters, each of which were connected to three strings of five modules in series.

An underperforming solar installation that was diagnosed by Aurora Solar and OmnidianThe underperforming solar installation as originally designed, recreated in Aurora for modeling purposes.
 
Recreating the existing system design made it possible to simulate how much energy the system “should” be producing and identify factors that were reducing power output. Aurora calculated that the existing design would produce approximately 12,000 kWh per year. A preliminary comparison of Aurora’s simulation results to recorded production data from the system revealed that Aurora’s simulation was within 1% of the system’s actual annual production.
 
Estimated energy production by Aurora solar software was within 1% of the actual system performance Aurora’s simulated system performance (monthly values in blue) compared to the actual system performance. Aurora’s simulation was within 1% of the actual annual production of the system.
 
From there, a review of Aurora’s simulation warnings helped to determine why production was less than it could have been. Aurora performs a wide array of checks on every system design, testing to see if there are any violations of engineering principles, the National Electric Code, or the capabilities of the components used.
Aurora Solar precisely forecasts solar energy production. Simulation of this design revealed a design flaw. Aurora’s performance simulations, which forecast how much energy a PV system will produce, also include alerts about potential design errors and other factors that will limit energy production or violate codes. (Note that the customer’s energy usage was not modeled in this diagnostic exercise, which is why there is no energy offset data.)
 
One alert in particular raised a big red flag about the system design: 72% of the time the string voltage for the system was falling below the inverter’s minimum operating voltage! This information provided a helpful starting point for determining what needed to be fixed for the system to perform optimally.

Pinpointing the Performance Problem

Further exploration revealed that shading was part of the issue; the shading from two neighboring palm trees at the site frequently caused the string voltage to be too low for the inverter. Another contributing factor was the fact that the strings were short (voltage is additive when panels are connected in series, so longer strings result in higher voltage). Because the voltage was frequently falling below the inverter’s minimum starting voltage due to these factors, there were periods of time when the system wasn’t exporting any energy at all.

As the Aurora team member who led the diagnosis explains, “The shade [at this site] plays a big part in the performance issue since the strings are at the very lower limit of the acceptable range. This means any shade will drop the string out of the voltage range and stop production. In a heavily shaded situation like this, it is imperative that strings as long as possible are used with a traditional string inverter.”

With the cause of underproduction identified, it was determined that it would be necessary to restring the system, making the strings longer so that they wouldn’t drop out of the voltage range of the inverter when shade was present.

Finding a Solution

Once it was determined that the system needed to be restrung with more modules on each string in order to keep the voltage within the inverter’s operating range, Aurora was used to model possible solutions. Simulating new potential stringing configurations made it possible to quantify the resulting production changes and ensure that there were no design flaws before service work was initiated.

The underperforming solar installation as redesigned Aurora Solar and OmnidianThe new proposed stringing configuration with longer string lengths to increase string voltage; it consists of two strings of seven panels in series connected to the first inverter and two strings with eight panels in series on the second inverter.

The stringing configuration proposed for the repair of the system included two strings of seven panels in series connected to the first inverter and two strings with eight panels in series on the second inverter. Aurora’s performance simulation revealed that the redesigned system would produce 3,433 kWh more per year than the existing design!

A key reason for this is that the string voltage would only fall below the inverter limit for 0.91% of daylight hours throughout the year under the new stringing configuration, compared to 72.39% of daylight hours when this occurred with the installed design.

The new solar design by Aurora Solar would produce thousands more kWh per year!Aurora’s performance simulation results for the new proposed stringing configuration, showing monthly and annual production, as well as alerts. (Note that the customer’s energy usage was not modeled in this diagnostic exercise, which is why there is no energy offset data.)
 

Accounting for Inverter Clipping

Once a restringing solution was identified, there was another question to resolve: whether the stringing configuration was compatible with the existing inverters. The new, longer string lengths meant that the DC voltage was oversized compared to the inverter rating and could sometimes exceed the max DC power of the inverter during times of high irradiance. This raised a potential red flag because it could limit energy production as a result of inverter clipping.

However, because Aurora models the expected impacts of inverter clipping based on local weather patterns and shading at the site, it was possible to determine that inverter clipping impacts would actually be very limited (1% of annual production, as noted in the simulation results above). As a result of this insight, the costly need to replace one or both of the inverters was avoided.

Achieving Performance Gains

With a resolution identified remotely, Omnidian coordinated service work to restring the system with the new stringing configuration. Initial production data showed marked improvements in performance: comparing three sunny days before the service work to three sunny days after the service work, the max power (kW) increased 16% and kWh generation increased 24%!

This solar customer was fortunate to have Omnidian monitoring their system, to identify the performance problems with their PV system and find a resolution without the need for the customer’s involvement. With Aurora’s top-of-the-line performance simulations, it was possible for Omnidian to diagnose the problem without a site visit, and then coordinate service to resolve the underproduction issue.

Although not a typical use of Aurora’s solar design software, this initiative highlighted the value of Aurora’s accurate performance simulations. It also shows how solar contractors can avoid design flaws through the use of robust design and performance simulation software. Had the installer of this system used Aurora they would have been alerted that the string voltage would frequently fall below the inverter’s operating voltage range, avoiding production losses for the customer and the need for system repair.

Thankfully, the resolution Omnidian arrived at with Aurora restored the system to its optimal performance, allowing the customer to generate thousands more kilowatt hours each year!

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Topics: solar design

Smarter Solar Design with Irradiance on Modules

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jan 29, 2019 2:43:10 PM

As every solar designer knows, understanding the solar irradiance (available solar energy) at a project site is crucial to designing a high-performing solar installation. That’s one reason that solar software which visually indicates irradiance at different points on the roof can streamline the process of creating an ideal solar design.

But what if—as in the case of ground mounts or carports—there is no roof? Or what if you want to quickly see how changing the tilt or orientation of your panels affects the irradiance they receive? In cases like these, being able to visualize the irradiance on each panel, not just the roof surface, can help designers quickly evaluate design changes and make informed decisions.

While Aurora’s irradiance engine has always calculated the solar irradiance on modules to ensure accurate production estimates, a new update makes it possible to see the irradiance on each panel for streamlined solar design. In today’s blog post, we explore a few of the ways this makes designing easier.

Aurora Solar software shows solar irradiance on solar panels for easier design.Aurora Solar software shows solar irradiance values at each point on a roof surface with a beautiful solar heat map (where lighter colors indicate higher levels of irradiance). A new update now makes it possible to see those values on the panels themselves, as shown above, for an improved solar design process.
 
Sign up for a free demo to see Aurora's irradiance on modules and other  cutting-edge features to improve your solar design process. 

Solar Carports and Ground Mounts

Being able to see irradiance on the surface of the panels themselves is particularly valuable when designing carports and ground mounts. Since there is no roof below these structures, being able to see the irradiance on the panels allows you to visually identify the optimal location.

With this new update, the designer can immediately see if shade will fall on the panels and, if so, explore other places to locate the array to maximize energy production—rather than having to run a performance simulation to determine expected energy production and then iterate.

Solar irradiance on carports as shown in Aurora Solar softwareWith solar irradiance values on panels in Aurora Solar software, contractors can easily assess shading on carport and ground mount designs—as shown in this example where some carports would receive shade from nearby trees.

Having solar irradiance and shading values on carport and ground mount panels also offers benefits when generating a shade report to submit to various agencies for approval of rebates and other incentives. Historically, contractors using hand-held devices to measure irradiance would have to attempt to estimate the angle and height at which to hold the device for an accurate shade measurement, given that there was no existing physical structure. Aurora’s new “irradiance on modules” feature saves contractors time by eliminating the need for this process.

When Panels Are Not Flush with the Roof

Another case in which it is particularly helpful to be able to see solar irradiance on the surface of your solar panels is in rooftop systems where the panels are not flush with the surface of the roof. This is because the tilt and orientation of a panel impact how much irradiance it will receive. Seeing the irradiance on modules allows you to visualize the actual irradiance the panels will receive given different tilts and orientations.

This visualization is also helpful in cases where rows of solar panels may shade each other (inter-row shading). The “heat map” on the modules indicates the extent of inter-row shading on the edges of the panels, so contractors have a visual cue to help determine whether they may want to adjust row spacing.

Aurora Solar's solar panel irradiance helps with inter-row shading and other design considerationsBeing able to see solar irradiance values on solar panels allows solar designers to visualize the effects of inter-row shading as well as shading from rooftop obstructions, as shown in this Aurora Solar design.

Excellence in solar design is a must for solar contractors to deliver high-performing systems that leave clients satisfied and ready to refer others. Yet if your operation is to be scalable, you need to be able to create optimal designs quickly and efficiently. Aurora’s new irradiance on modules feature is one more tool at your disposal to streamline the solar design process—saving time and money while ensuring precision and accuracy for your clients.

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Topics: irradiance

Find the Best Candidates for Solar Jobs with This New Tool

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jan 25, 2019 11:17:50 AM

If your solar company is like many in the U.S., finding the right candidates to fill job openings can sometimes be a challenge. In fact, according to the Solar Training Network 84% of installers have difficulty finding qualified applicants, with 26% finding it “very difficult.”

But what if you could connect with solar job candidates that you might not otherwise reach, more easily compare candidates, and help increase diversity at your company at the same time? The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) recently joined forces with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Community Development Action Coalition (HBCU CDAC) to highlight a solar hiring tool that can do just that!

The HBCU Talent Exchange, developed by the HBCU CDAC–which SEIA began partnering with in 2018–is a cutting edge tool that helps employers quickly connect with qualified solar job candidates while reducing hiring bias.

Finding the right employees is one way to improve your solar business, having  the right design tools is another. Sign up for a free demo to see how Aurora  can help you work smarter.

Background

The HBCU CDAC is a national nonprofit founded in 2010 as a resource for historically black colleges and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and the community economic development industry to leverage their resources and strengthen their surrounding communities. Some of its objectives include creating economic opportunity, building healthy and sustainable communities, and increasing participation in STEM fields by historically underrepresented individuals.

In 2018, SEIA launched a partnership with the HBCU CDAC with the goal of creating opportunities to increase participation of HBCU students in the solar industry workforce by exploring opportunities to connect qualified students with open solar jobs at SEIA member companies.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this week, SEIA released a video (linked below) showcasing the solar hiring tool and how solar companies can benefit from it.

About the HBCU Talent Exchange

As SEIA explains, they see the HBCU Talent Exchange “as one way we can help our member companies address hiring challenges, while simultaneously reducing hiring bias and mismatches between job seekers and companies. The Talent Exchange moves beyond resume and job description searches to share more accurate information that helps both employers and job seekers make more informed hiring decisions.”

Unlike traditional hiring tools and solar job boards, the Talent Exchange is survey-based rather than resume based, using a proprietary matching software that’s designed to better assess what positions a candidate is a good fit for—and connect candidates and organizations that might not otherwise have found each other.

Companies with job openings answer a variety of questions about their needs and preferences for the position, and candidates answer questions about their skills, interests, and workplace. Candidates are ranked based on their fit for different roles and companies, and the system generates customized reports for employers and candidates that help show areas of alignment and potential misalignment. Additionally, with standardized views of candidate qualifications—and notifications of top matches—employers can more easily compare candidates and make better decisions, faster.

The system also helps ensure qualified candidates are aware of and considered for relevant positions because candidates are invited to apply for new openings relevant to their interests, and the system evaluates the fit of each applicant for every job within a category (for instance, if there are two similar jobs at the same company, the candidate will be considered for both without having to reapply). It can also mask information prone to bias. Jobs posted in the system are automatically posted to 5000 other no-cost local, regional and national job sites.

To learn more, SEIA and HBCU CDAC’s video below provides an overview of the system and how to post a job (see ~16:20 for a demonstration of the system). To post a job on the HBCU Talent exchange, you can visit its webpage, and select “Post a Job” to create an account.

If you’re looking for a new avenue to connect with qualified candidates, this is an opportunity to efficiently fill solar job openings while also reducing hiring bias and potentially increase diversity in your company. As we highlighted in a past blog post, a diverse workforce has been shown to bring many benefits to companies. The first-ever study of diversity in the solar sector (by The Solar Foundation in 2017) found plenty of room for improving racial and gender diversity in the solar workforce; this tool could be a helpful step in that direction.

P.S. Speaking of solar jobs, we’re hiring here at Aurora! Our careers page has all of our open positions if you or someone you know are interested.

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Topics: Solar Business Tips, Solar Jobs

The Key Differences Between Residential and Commercial Solar

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jan 9, 2019 12:41:37 PM

What are the core differences in serving residential and commercial and industrial (C&I) solar markets as a solar contractor? If you’ve ever thought about expanding your residential solar contracting work to serve commercial customers as well, you might find it helpful to understand what these sectors have in common and where they diverge.

Barry Durand HeadshotTo get the lowdown on some of the key differences in solar contracting for residential and C&I solar projects, we spoke with Barry Durand, Director Commercial Sales, and Yashwanth (Yash) Ganti, Design Engineering Manager, at Green Solar Technologies.

Green Solar Technologies expanded into commercial solar several years ago, after nearly a decade serving residential solar customers–so Durand and Ganti were well positioned to highlight the important differences between the two sectors.

Yash Ganti HeadshotOur conversation highlighted several notable differences between C&I and residential solar contracting, including differences in the length and complexity of projects, communication with customers, project costs, and financing. Read on to learn more!

1.C&I solar projects take longer, partially because of permitting complexity.

As Durand explained, “Residential [solar] is a quicker process. As far as determining the size of the system, calculating the [financial] benefits, and actually getting it installed, it typically takes from 4 weeks to 12 weeks.

Commercial, not so much. It's a lot longer process for people involved with it; it could take anywhere from six months to a year before the project gets done.” A big part of this is the permitting process, which Durand noted “is quite a bit different, and quite a bit longer.” Ganti reiterated this point, noting that “There's a lot more review involved from the local jurisdictions.”

“For example, here in the city of Los Angeles, when it's a residential job under 10 kW, you can apply for permitting approval online and you don't even have to turn in a plan set. But when it comes to commercial, anything bigger than 10kW, there is a more detailed review process.”

Ganti explains that after turning in plan sets to the local permitting office, “they'll give you a time frame to review the entire plan set, which could be up to two weeks. From there, there can be multiple revisions, if they want you to add more detail.”

Durand also noted that these time frame differences affect the sales process. Companies considering expanding their work into C&I solar need to be aware that the commercial solar sales process is longer (a theme that also came up in our interview with the Community Purchasing Alliance).

permitting

Aurora Solar supports both residential and commercial solar design and sales.  Learn more in a free demo.

2. Commercial projects are more technical.

Increased technical complexity is another important factor that differentiates commercial solar contracting. As Ganti explains, “From my perspective when it comes to designing a residential and a commercial job, residential is fairly straightforward. It's on a smaller scale so you're easily able to identify any technical issues and suggest a cost-effective solution for them right away.”

“But when it comes to commercial, there are much more technical concepts involved. For example, you may be dealing with electrical equipment at a higher rating, such as 2000 or even 3000 ampere (amp) switchgears. You have to understand whether you may need transformer upgrades based on whether the local lines can handle the solar backfeed. Basically, all of the technical considerations get more complex when you transition from residential to commercial.”

Because of this, Durand emphasized that it’s very important for companies considering making this transition to ensure “they have a quality engineering firm or a really good in-house designer that's very familiar with commercial [projects] to help streamline the process.”

Beyond ensuring technical competence, this can help speed up the permitting process by reducing the need for revisions. Durand explained that an experienced engineering firm or in-house engineer, can “make sure that you've got [the permit application] done as well as you can the first time. That means a very good site survey and making sure you've accurately answered every question.”

“Once you do that, [the permitting process is] going to be a lot more streamlined. Yes, it will still take two to six months to get to the point where the system is ready to be installed–but if you don't start with that it could take a year.”

commercial complexity

3. Communication with customers differs from residential solar projects.

Communication with customers is also somewhat different for C&I solar contracting compared to residential. Because commercial projects span over a much longer time, it’s important to establish clear expectations at the outset for the length of time the project will take.

“The difference is all about length of time,” says Durand. “With a homeowner, the minute you sign an agreement with them, they want solar on [their house] tomorrow... You have to communicate with them every few days... it's a totally different animal.”

“With commercial, we manage those expectations a certain way,” letting them know “it's going to take six months to a year." Because of that, the frequency of communication may be less than with a homeowner (though of course clarity in communication and regular updates are important in all solar projects).

customer communication

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4. Commercial projects have higher costs, but lower cost per watt.

Another key difference between residential and commercial solar projects is in the costs. While it’s intuitive that the price tag of a large C&I project will be greater than for a small residential solar system, Ganti and Durand highlighted some particular aspects of C&I projects that come with much higher costs.

“For example,” Ganti noted, “if you have to upgrade an electrical panel, it will probably cost you about $2,000 in a residential job. When it comes to commercial, you're actually looking at upgrading the local transformer, which could cost from $4,000 to $20,000 or more depending on the local transformer and other technical factors.”

Despite this, because of the economies of scale at play in commercial projects, the cost per watt of commercial projects tends to be lower. “A contractor can end up saving money on a cost per watt basis for a [commercial] installation due to the fact that some of these costs are set, whether residential or commercial.” He cited the cost of truck rolls to bring staff to a project site as an example. Additional savings come from buying hardware components in bulk.

For these reasons, for contractors that are prepared to manage the complexity of C&I solar projects, it can be a very lucrative sector.

5. Financing for commercial solar projects is less accessible.

A final important difference between residential and C&I solar relates to financing. Durand notes that “it's a lot easier access to financing for the residential market, than for commercial,” a factor that has held back the growth of the C&I sector.

Durand notes that in residential solar, financing options have been more developed, whereas the C&I sector is somewhat new territory. Despite that, he observes “there are more and more ways to start financing your commercial projects; not everybody wants to pay cash.” He recommends that for businesses that have a relationship with their own bank, that can be a great place to start when seeking a solar loan.

 

Although commercial and residential solar contracting diverge in a number of respects, a final takeaway from our conversation with Durand and Ganti was that, ultimately, the two sectors are not so different. “As long as [contractors]... hire the right engineering firm, have the right equipment, and the skills to do the installation, it's the same process,” says Durand. “[Commercial solar is] not that difficult, it’s just a matter of having all of your ducks in a row when you start.”

 

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Topics: PV System Costs, solar industry, Solar Permitting, Commercial Solar

The Aurora Blog’s Top 10 Articles of 2018

Posted by Gwen Brown on Dec 24, 2018 9:45:59 AM

From solar tariffs to new utility rates, 2018 has been filled with surprises for the solar industry. But it’s also been a year filled with progress towards a solar-powered future–as exemplified by the unprecedented state and local commitment to clean energy around the country, and by utility-scale renewables reaching prices that are at or below that of many fossil fuels. Through it all, our goal here at the Aurora Blog has remained the same: to produce helpful, informative articles, from policy updates to discussions of solar engineering concepts, to help you navigate the ins-and-outs of the solar industry.

With the end of the year around the corner, we took a look back at our most popular articles published this year. If you missed these updates when they were first published, now’s your chance to catch up on the articles that have been a hit with your solar industry peers.

1. The 2018 State Solar Policy Changes You Need to Know

Our most popular article published 2018 was our guide to the state policy changes affecting solar and renewable energy around the country. Originally published mid-year, we’ve been updating this guide with all the key policy changes around the country, both good and bad (including New York’s exciting new announcement just last week that is aiming for 100% carbon-fuel free electricity by 2040!). Quickly navigate to your state to see if there are any new developments you should be keeping tabs on.

2. Understanding PV System Losses, Part 1: Nameplate, Mismatch, and LID Losses

PV system losses–the many factors that can reduce the energy production of your solar installation–can be complex. Throughout the year, Aurora’s Research Engineer Andrew Gong has been sharing his insights and industry data to help you better understand the different loss types and how to accurately account for them in your solar production estimates.

While Part 1, exploring nameplate, mismatch, and LID losses, has been a hit, the whole series (which concluded with Part 4, published last week) has been popular with solar contractors around the country. You can check out the full series here.

PV_System_Losses_Cover-small

3. 5 Reasons Blockchain Is Game-Changing for Solar Energy

 Blockchain–the mechanism behind bitcoin–remains something of a mystery to many. But for those of us passionate about clean energy, it’s worth paying attention to for several reasons. Our popular article on blockchain explores what it is why it matters for clean energy.

Blockchain_Background_Image-1

4. Does Solar Increase Home Value? The Latest Data for Solar Clients

 When you’re selling a residential solar installation, which will be part of a customer’s home for decades to come, one of the main things they may be concerned about is how it will affect their home’s value. We explored the literature on how solar installations affect home prices–and uncovered some exciting facts you’ll want to share with prospective customers.

Solar_Home_Value-Cover-small

5. How Net Metering is Evolving: Three Changes You Need to Know

As solar energy becomes a greater proportion of the energy mix in markets around the country, utilities are experimenting with new rate structures with important implications for solar savings. We explored these changes to net metering policies and identified the major trends to be aware of and what they mean for solar customers.

NEM_Variations_Background

6. Key Solar Energy Terms: Irradiance, Insolation, TSRF and More

The amount of solar energy available at a location is an essential starting point for determining whether a solar installation makes sense and what design will work best. There are a number of different terms for quantifying solar energy and it’s important for solar professionals to well-versed in what they mean and how they differ. Our article on this topic provides a quick and handy primer, whether you’re a seasoned solar veteran or new to the industry.

Irradiance_Terms_Background

7. Turning Solar Support Into Solar Sales: 5 Tactics for Effective Communication

One of our favorite conference sessions at Solar Power International this year explored how we communicate about solar and highlighted communication lessons for increasing solar support. Although solar enjoys broad support from Americans, this doesn’t always translate into action. A panel of communication experts, from a former White House Communications to the former Chief Marketing Officer at Beats by Dr. Dre and Apple, shared their insights on how to get your message across effectively. We identified the key lessons from the session.

SPI 2018 - postive attitudes for solar cover-1

 8. Lessons for Success from the 2018 Top Solar Contractors List

Each year, Solar Power World compiles a list of the Top Solar Contractors in the U.S., based on the kilowatt capacity of projects they installed, developed, or helped construct in the previous year. We reached out to these companies to get their insights for running a successful solar business.In response to our question, “What advice and tips would you give to solar companies to operate successfully?” we saw several themes emerge. If you’re considering what your company can do to maximize success in the solar industry in the coming year, check out the advice of some of the most prolific U.S. solar installation companies of 2018.

Top_Contractors_Tips_Cover-1

9. SEIA President & CEO Abby Hopper on Solar Policy Priorities and More

From Washington, D.C. to state capitals around the country, if there’s a policy change that affects clean energy in the U.S., chances are the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is there advocating for the advancement of solar. We had the pleasure of speaking with SEIA President and CEO Abby Hopper to learn more about SEIA’s advocacy priorities, changes in solar markets around the country, opportunities for increasing diversity in the solar workforce and customer base, and more. Check out our interview for Hopper’s take on these important industry topics.

Hopper-Abby-headshot-for-newsletter

10. The Green Bank Programs Making Solar Financing More Accessible, Part 1

As any solar contractor knows, solar installations remain out of reach for many interested customers due to the high upfront cost. But green banks, a new type of finance institution established by governments to accelerate the growth of clean energy markets, are helping to make solar financing more accessible. And this trend is still going strong with Colorado’s establishment of a green bank just last week (something we’ll explore in a future article).

In this two-part series, we spoke with staff at green banks across the U.S. to determine what programs solar contractors in different states should be aware of and offer insight into the diversity of approaches green banks are applying to help solar markets grow. For more background on green banks and how they work, we also put together a primer explaining them.

We hope that the Aurora blog has been a valuable resource for you in 2018 to advance your solar knowledge and your work in the industry. Do you have other favorite articles that didn’t make this list? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below!


 P.S. As Aurora’s Content Marketer, I’m always thinking about how our blog can better serve the needs of solar contractors. I’d love to hear from you about what solar topics you’re most interested in reading about in 2019, or other thoughts on how we can continue to improve! Feel free to email me at gbrown(at)aurorasolar.com. 

Topics: Year in Review

The 100% Clean Energy Revolution is Here–with Big Solar Opportunities

Posted by Gwen Brown on Dec 12, 2018 12:49:06 PM

Not only do solar and other renewable energy sources enjoy broad support among individual Americans (9 out of 10 support solar according to SEIA!), local governments have also been demonstrating increasing clean energy commitment. In fact, this month, Cincinnati, Ohio became the 100th U.S. city to set a target of sourcing 100% renewable energy!

The Sierra Club, whose Ready for 100 campaign supports communities in committing to 100% renewable energy, estimates that 15% of the U.S. population now lives in a city with a 100% clean energy target. An additional 11 counties  and 4 states–Hawaii, California, New Jersey, and, most recently, New York–have made comparable commitments. The city council of Washington, D.C. has also committed to 100% renewable energy, pending approval by the mayor and Congress.

Add to that the numerous other state actions in favor of clean energy this year and the over 400 mayors representing 70 million people that have expressed support for the Paris climate agreement, and it’s clear that support for solar and other clean energy is reaching unprecedented levels.  

The importance of these commitments can hardly be overstated, particularly in light of the recent report by 13 federal agencies which identified drastic climate change impacts for the U.S., including significant contraction of the country’s economy. Fortunately, investment in renewable energy can significantly reduce carbon emissions while driving economic benefits and job growth. Not to mention it can create significant business opportunities for the solar industry!

In today’s blog post we explore what local commitments to 100% renewable energy mean for solar–particularly how solar contractors can get involved in the clean energy transitions of their local communities.

Which cities and towns have committed to 100% renewable energy?

Cities all across the country have made commitments to 100% renewable energy, including Atlanta, Boulder, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Jose, St. Louis, Cleveland, and many, many more. For the full list, and contact information for city representatives, see the Sierra Club’s list of 100% Renewable Energy Commitments.

Metadata: Cities that have committed to sourcing 100% clean energy, courtesy of Sierra Clubs Ready for 100 campaign for 100% renewable energy.Cities that have committed to 100% renewable energy (white dots) and cities already powered by 100% renewable energy (blue dots). Not pictured is Kodiak Island, Alaska (powered by 100% renewable energy). Source: Sierra Club Ready for 100.

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What is involved in a city’s commitment to 100% renewable energy?

You might be wondering what it really means when a city commits to 100% renewable energy. Does the commitment only apply to electricity use by the local government, or does it apply to all residents and local businesses? While the specific commitments vary by city, many of these local commitments cover the electricity consumption of the entire community.

As the Sierra Club explains, its 'Ready for 100' campaign recognizes community commitments... where a city’s leadership has established a goal to transition to the entire community to 100% clean, renewable energy. This can be through a stand-alone Resolution or Proclamation, or integrated into a community's Climate Action Plan or Energy Action Plan.”

In the case of Cincinnati, the city has committed to sourcing 100% of electricity for residents and small businesses from renewable energy by 2035. The first stage of that commitment will involve 25 megawatts of solar development, and the city is exploring potential project sites.

For communities interested in similar commitments, the Sierra Club offers policy guidelines, including recommendations that local clean energy mandates consider justice, equity, affordability, and access to clean energy, and that they follow a transparent and inclusive planning process.

What do local commitments to 100% renewable energy mean for solar companies?

As you might expect, these local commitments can open up a lot of business opportunity for solar companies to help meet the community energy needs with solar. Like Cincinnati, many of these cities are actively working to encourage the development of local solar projects or directly soliciting bids from solar companies.

Utility Dive reports that a partnership of 20 cities–including Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Portland, and Orlando–have teamed up to jointly issue Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for collectively purchasing a total of 5700 GWh renewable energy!

Similarly, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle have jointly issued a Request for Information (RFI) for electric vehicle charging infrastructure development valued at more than $10 billion.

Other examples of cities incorporating solar development into their 100% renewable energy commitments include:

  • Concord, New Hampshire–planning a large solar plant on a closed landfill and changing local zoning to better accommodate local solar projects
  • Denton, Texas–approved a contract for a 100 MW solar project
  • Denver, Colorado–in addition to a community solar program, Denver is requiring all new construction to be net zero by 2035, a move which may encourage more solar on new construction
  • Fayetteville, Arkansas–exploring solar projects on its municipal buildings
  • Orlando, Florida–in addition to other pro-solar initiatives, Orlando’s Collective Solar cooperative helps residents take advantage of economies of scale when purchasing solar

While the specific plans for achieving 100% renewable energy vary by city, if there are cities in your area with such commitments it’s worth taking a close look at their procurement plans. In particular, check to see if they include RFPs or other opportunities for your solar company to participate in local solar development. For those interested in learning more, the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 list includes contact information for local representatives who can provide more information on particular programs.

Even if your local area doesn’t have a 100% clean energy commitment, take a look at what other clean energy initiatives they have. Many cities and towns without such ambitious targets still have powerful incentives for advancing local clean energy. For example, Watertown, Massachusetts recently passed a measure requiring solar installations on all new commercial buildings over 10,000 square feet.

If your locality doesn’t have clean energy policies, consider talking with your local representatives about how clean energy can benefit your community. After all, as a solar contractor, you know the ins-and-outs of solar project development and can be a valuable source of information for your elected leaders. Around the country, local communities are leading the way on the clean energy transition–which is good news for the environment, the economy, and the solar industry!

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Topics: solar policy, Solar Business Tips

The 2018 State Solar Policy Changes You Need to Know

Posted by Gwen Brown on Dec 5, 2018 11:37:00 AM

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2018. It was updated on August 27, 2018 and again on December 5 and 24, 2018 to reflect new policy developments. The December updates reflect new solar policy changes in CaliforniaIllinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, PennsylvaniaVirginia, and Washington.]

The solar industry is always dynamic, and keeping track of the latest developments around the nation can be tricky. Although 2018 got off to a rocky start with the federal government’s decision in January to impose a 30% tariff on foreign-manufactured solar components, there have since been a plethora of state-level policy developments that paint a more positive picture for the industry.

Actions by California, New Jersey, New York, and Washington state to commit to 100% renewable or carbon-free energy were especially noteworthy. Nevada also established an ambitious clean energy targets of 50%. California also made the striking decision to require solar installations on new homes. This move—by the world’s fifth largest economy—will help normalize solar technologies and massively expand the solar market.

Additionally, Hawaii’s redesign of utility incentives provides a model for how utilities can benefit from solar growth. Virginia’s major utility took the first steps toward significant solar procurement in accordance with a new state law. Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts updated their solar incentive programs and Maryland offered grant funding for solar-plus-storage projects to improve resilience.

Not all of the state-level actions in 2018 were supportive of solar, however. In particular, rollbacks of net metering may dampen the solar markets in Michigan and Connecticut. Massachusetts and, more recently, Kansas approved demand charges for solar customers. Despite these setbacks, overall 2018  demonstrated that many states recognize the value of solar and other renewable energies and are ready to take action. 

Solar Policy Developments- Map Update Dec. 2018

Just interested in a particular state? 
Click on one to jump ahead:

CaliforniaColoradoFloridaHawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts,
New Jersey, Nevada, New York, PennsylvaniaUtah, Virginia, Washington
Connecticut, KansasMassachusettsMichigan


(Green indicates positive developments for solar and orange indicates negative ones. Massachusetts had both and appears in both sections.) 

The Good News

California

By far the biggest state policy updates, in terms of impacts for the solar industry more broadly, came out of California this year. California mandated that all new homes include a solar installation starting in 2020, as part of a requirement to make homes net zero. Additionally, in September, California Governor Jerry Brown  signed legislation requiring all of the state's energy to be carbon-free by by 2045. As the fifth largest economy, California's decisions on these issues have massive implications for the growth of solar energy.

The Solar on New Homes Mandate

On May 9th, the California Energy Commission mandated that nearly all new homes have rooftop solar starting in 2020. The changes, part of the state’s newly approved 2019 Building Energy Code, received final approval on December 5th.

The decision will significantly increase demand for solar energy; Greentech Media predicts a 14% increase in total U.S. solar sales over the next four years as a result! It also represents an important shift in making solar energy a new normal for consumers. Resulting industry changes may also contribute to falling costs for California solar installations.

(For a detailed overview of the policy and related business opportunities for  solar contractors, check out our on-demand webinar!)

This announcement will spur further growth in the California solar market, which has more installed solar than any other state by a factor of five according to SEIA. 

California solar policy change: rooftop solar required for all new homes in 2020

SB 100: Carbon-free Energy for California by 2045

In September 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 100 which establishes a target of providing 100% of the state's electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. In addition to creating a path to complete clean energy, the bill accelerates the pace of California's clean energy transition–increasing to 60% (from 50% previously) the amount of energy that must come from renewable sources by 2030. California is the second state to make a 100% clean energy commitment after Hawaii, which made that commitment in 2015. 

At the signing ceremony, Brown also announced an executive order to make California carbon neutral also by 2045, meaning that it would need to remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it emits. 

In September 2018, California's Senate Bill 100 became law requiring 100% of its electricity to be carbon-free by 2045.

Colorado

Colorado became one of the first states to designate energy storage as a consumer right when Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed SB 18-009 into law in late March. The law states that residents should be able to install, use, and interconnect energy storage systems without unnecessary restrictions or discriminatory rates. It calls upon the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to establish rules governing customer-sited energy storage. 

Colorado solar policy change: energy storage deemed consumer right

Florida

In a notable development for the Florida solar market, the Public Service Commission issued a statement in late April declaring that residential solar leases are allowed in the state. Previously, solar leases were deemed “third-party electricity sales,” which are prohibited in Florida.

Sunrun successfully argued to the commission that solar leases should be allowed because the payments are fixed and not contingent upon the amount of solar electricity the system produces. Florida solar customers now have a new financing option to choose from and solar companies in the state can offer a new product. 

Florida solar policy change: Solar leases are now legal in Florida

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Hawaii

Hawaii is changing the revenue model for investor-owned electric utilities to better align their incentives with the growth of solar and energy storage. The measure, signed into law in April, is expected to aid the process of modernizing the state’s electricity grid because utility revenues will now be linked to performance metrics. The use of distributed energy resources like solar, rather than investment in costly new utility-owned infrastructure projects, will be incentivized.

This is big news. Utilities are a major player in the power sector, and their support or opposition is a major determining factor in solar market growth. Better aligning utility incentives with solar growth, as states like Hawaii and New York have endeavored to do, presents new opportunities for utilities to support the growth of renewable energy.

[Note: For related insights on how new revenue models for utilities can advance the growth of solar, see Aurora’s interview with Dr. Varun Sivaram.]

Hawaii solar policy change: utility incentives now favor solar, storage

Additionally, in July, regulators ruled that existing solar customers in Hawaii who have net metering agreements (from prior to the state’s elimination of net metering in 2015), may now add energy storage systems without voiding the terms of their metering agreement.

Illinois

In April, Illinois regulators produced a plan to procure 25% of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2025, as required under the Future Energy Jobs Act passed in 2016. Not only does the plan cover large investor-owned utilities, it also includes smaller, municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives–which solar advocates say will make solar incentives more accessible to low-income and rural customers.

The policy impacts the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which allows utilities to source some of their required renewable energy in the form of credits (Renewable Energy Certificates, including solar-specific SRECs) produced by renewable energy system owners. Under the new policy, Illinois existing SREC program is being updated.

The SREC program will now become an adjustable block rate program, in which solar will be compensated at a set flat rate (which declines as certain levels of installed capacity are hit), rather than a traditional SREC market where prices fluctuate based on market dynamics. Additionally, the SREC incentive program now lasts for 15 years, rather than the previous 5 year limit. The details of the program are still being finalized, but it will go into effect sometime in 2019. 

Illinois solar policy: In 2018, Illinois announced plans for sourcing 25% renewable energy by 2025, including changes for its SREC program

Aurora's financial analysis tools can model a wide variety of state and local  incentives. See how in a free demo. 

Maryland

In November, the Maryland Energy Administration launched a program to create “resiliency hubs,” powered by solar and energy storage, in disadvantaged communities. The program makes $5 million in grant funding available to solar and storage providers to help ensure low-income residents have access to basic services during power outages. The deadline for grant applications is March 1, 2019 and more information on the program can be found here.

Maryland solar policy: Maryland announced funding for resilience hubs - available to developers of solar + storage projects

Massachusetts

In October, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources approved compensation for owners of new solar projects under the state’s Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program, a successor to its previous SREC incentive program.

Like SRECs, the SMART program is a production-based incentive, meaning that PV system owners are compensated based on the amount of energy their system produces. Unlike the SREC program, however, system owners receive a fixed rate of compensation per unit of energy produced rather than being compensated a variable amount based on market demand.

The program is a declining block incentive program (similar to Illinois’ incentive program), where compensation rates will gradually decline over time as certain levels of installed capacity are reached. Applications for SMART compensation opened on November 26, 2018. Although compensation under this new program will be somewhat less than under the previous SREC program which had reached its limit, the program maintains incentives for solar customers and provides much-needed certainty to the industry.

Massachusetts solar policy: Massachusetts launched its SMART solar incentive program in 2018, replacing its SREC program

New Jersey

The New Jersey solar industry also got good news this year. Governor Phil Murphy signed into law several key energy bills, including one that updates the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, requiring 35% of its power to come from renewables by 2025 and 50% by 2030. In addition, the law establishes the most ambitious solar-specific target in the nation, requiring that utilities source ~5% of their energy from distributed solar by 2021.

The law also includes a 600 MW energy storage target and establishes a community solar pilot program for the state. It also establishes a planned phase out of New Jersey’s SREC program in 2021 but calls on regulators to establish a successor program to support distributed New Jersey solar projects. 

In other positive news for clean energy advocates, Governor Murphy also signed an executive order requiring the development of an Energy Master Plan providing a comprehensive plan for the state to reach 100% clean energy by 2050.

NJ Renewables Target graphic-updated

 

New York

In October, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state will make $40 million of incentives available to support solar-plus-storage projects. The initiative is intended to advance New York’s existing commitments to source 50% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and install 1500 MW of energy storage by 2025.

The funds will be available as part of New York’s existing Megawatt Block incentive program. Eligible projects with energy storage will be able to receive an additional incentive of $350 per kWh of installed storage capacity. Solar projects that have already been approved for the state’s existing incentives may be approved for these new incentives if they add energy storage.

New York solar policy change: $40 million in incentives now available for solar + storage projects

Then, on December 17, 2018, Governor Cuomo pledged the state to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 in a speech announcing his policy agenda for early 2019. The move builds upon the state’s existing strong commitments to renewable energy.

New_York_Solar_Policy_Changes2-100_percent_carbon-free

Nevada

In the midterm elections in November, Nevada voters approved a ballot initiative (”Question 6”) to increase the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to require utilities to source 50% of their electricity from renewable energy by 2030. This is a significant increase from the state’s previous RPS which called for 25% renewables by 2025, and another great example of states leading the way on clean energy policy.

Nonprofit advocacy group Vote Solar worked to build support for the measure, and the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that the policy could contribute to the creation of 11,170 full-time jobs and $1.5 billion in economic activity in 2030.

Nevada solar policy change: Nevada will seek to source 50% of electricity from renewables by 2030

 Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has lagged behind neighboring states like New Jersey and Maryland in solar development. A new initiative announced by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) may help change that.

Funded by a Sunshot grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the state has initiated a 2-year planning process called “Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future” which is exploring approaches to provide 10% of the state’s energy from in-state solar by 2030, including changes to Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (it’s RPS).

A key output of the collaborative planning process is Pennsylvania’s Solar Future Plan, a set of recommendations released in November 2018 which includes 15 recommended strategies. The next step will be the development of an Implementation Report which will provide direction on how to implement the plan.

However the plan is implemented, it’s likely to be good news for the solar industry in Pennsylvania. The DEP predicts the plan could create between 60,000 and 100,000 new jobs, and as much as $1.6 billion in economic benefits annually.

Additionally, Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill earlier this year allowing commercial PACE (C-PACE) financing in the state, which would allow commercial property owners to repay solar loans via their property taxes, in municipalities that establish C-PACE programs.

Pennsylvania solar policy change:

Utah

Two new policies with important implications for the Utah solar industry were signed into law by Utah Governor Gary Herbert in late March. One extends a $1,600 tax credit for residential Utah solar customers for an additional two years. The credit will begin to be phased out in 2021 over a period of three years. The other is a consumer protection measure that requires solar companies provide all residential customers with a disclosure statement to help ensure they understand the terms of their contracts. SEIA has applauded these developments.

These developments, particularly the tax credit, are welcome news for Utah’s solar industry since recent data show a slowdown in its rooftop solar market, likely stemming from a 2017 change to the state’s net metering approach.

Utah solar policy update: tax credits extended, consumer protection measure passed

Virginia

The solar industry in Virginia is poised to surge as a result of its Grid Transformation & Security Act of 2018 which states, among other things, that 5000 MW of solar development by utilities is in the interest of the state. In October, Dominion Virginia Power issued a request for proposals (RFP) for 500 MW of solar projects, to be developed by 2020.

The projects may either be sold to Dominion or it will purchase the energy they produce through 20-year power purchase agreements. The resulting solar development will be utility-scale, with the minimum allowable project size being 5 MW. 

Virginia solar policy change: A new law states that 5000 MW of solar is in the state's best interest; Dominion Power is now seeking 500 MW in solar

Washington

On December 10, 2018 Washington Governor Jay Inslee released an ambitious clean energy proposal that addresses “five policy goals: 100% clean energy by 2045, transitioning to electric transportation, adding a clean fuel standard, constructing energy efficient buildings and eliminating hydrofluorocarbon.” As part of the transition to 100% clean energy, coal-fired power plants would be phased out by 2025. The proposal also calls for the reduction of over 80 million metric tons to limit them to 25% below 1990 levels by 2035.

Washington_Solar_Policy_Changes

The Bad News

Connecticut

Despite vocal opposition from the Connecticut solar industry, the state recently eliminated net metering for solar customers. The bill, which advocacy groups had decried as a serious threat to 2000+ Connecticut solar jobs was signed into law by Governor Dannel Malloy in June. 

As written, the policy would set a new flat rate for solar compensation, though the exact structure that will be implemented remains to be seen. The decision now goes to the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority for review and rate setting. One bright spot in the bill is that it establishes a target of 40% renewable energy by 2030 under the state’s renewable portfolio standard by 2030.

Connecticut Net Metering Elim graphic- revised Aug. 2018

Kansas

While many states took steps to advance the growth of the solar industry, Kansas took a step back this year. In September, Kansas regulators approved a new charge that only applies to solar customers of the state’s largest electric utility, Westar Energy. The demand fee–of $9 per kilowatt in summer and $3 per kilowatt at other times of the year–is expected to cancel out the savings for many smaller solar projects, reports Midwest Energy News. The fee will apply to solar systems installed in 2015 and later, including new systems.

Demand charges, while common for commercial customers, have historically been rare for residential customers (though Massachusetts also applied residential demand charges this year, as discussed below).These charges are based on the maximum amount of energy the customer used during any (usually 15-minute) interval during the month. They are very difficult for customers to control and, as we discuss in a commercial case study, can significantly reduce solar savings.

Kansas solar policy change: regulators approved hefty demand charges for solar customers in 2018

Massachusetts

In one of the first blows to solar energy this year, Massachusetts approved new charges for new solar customers in January. At the same time, the state became the first in the nation to approve demand charges for all residential net metering customers starting in 2019, a “charge without a cause” according to industry groups.

A bill passed by the Massachusetts Senate in June raised hopes that the demand charge might be repealed. Unfortunately, the version ultimately agreed upon by the House and Senate and signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker on August 9th, did not contain the repeal language. It upholds the charges, stating that a ”distribution company may assess a demand charge if it is based on system peak demand during the hours of a day determined to be peak hours of system demand and if the distribution company regularly informs affected customers of the manner in which demand charges are assessed and of ways in which said customers might manage and reduce demand.”

Massachusetts solar policy update: Massachusetts applies fees and demand charges to solar customers

Michigan

Michigan dealt a serious blow to solar by eliminating net metering. In late April, the Michigan Public Service Commission elected to replace net metering with a new approach. Under this policy, solar customers will buy energy from the grid at the retail rate but be compensated for the solar energy they send to the grid at a significantly lower rate. That rate will be based on an estimate of how much the utility would otherwise pay to procure that power, an “avoided cost” calculation. Fortunately, current Michigan net metering customers will retain their current rates for 10 years, but the shift is a big loss for future Michigan solar customers.

[Note: For an overview of related trends, check out Aurora’s blog post on how net metering is changing—and being scaled back—around the country.]

Michigan Solar Policy update: In April 2018, Michigan eliminated net metering for future solar customers, significantly reducing savings from solar.

Although not all of the state policy changes to date this year were favorable for solar, it’s great to see so many states recognizing the value of solar and working to make it more accessible. We’re excited to see how solar continues to grow in the coming year!

Are there policy developments we missed?  Let us know in the comments below!

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Topics: solar policy

How Solar Irradiance Is Calculated–and How We Made It 30 Times Faster

Posted by Gwen Brown on Nov 21, 2018 10:03:00 AM

When you sit down to design a solar installation for a prospective customer, probably one of the first things you consider is how much solar energy (irradiance) is available in different locations. If you’re using remote solar design software, rather than relying on manual measurements at the project, all you have to do is click a button and the software generates an irradiance map showing the solar irradiance at every point on the roof of your site model.

But what’s happening behind the scenes in your solar software to deliver that irradiance map? Do you understand the diverse components that go into the calculation of solar irradiance?

While one of the benefits of solar software is that you don’t need to think too much about these calculations, it can be helpful to have an understanding of how solar irradiance is calculated to answer customer questions. Here at Aurora, we think about these calculations a lot, and recently our engineers have been working hard on updates that increased the speed of irradiance calculations by 30 times!

Today’s blog post explains the principles of calculating solar irradiance and discusses some of the computation approaches we employed to make this critical process faster for you.

An example of a solar irradiance map generated by Aurora solar software.An example of a solar irradiance map generated by Aurora solar software.

The Basics of Irradiance Calculations

While you might think that solar irradiance is just based on the rays of sunlight that directly reach a surface, there are actually several sources of irradiance that go into the calculation. The first of these is that direct “beam” irradiance that you might intuitively associate with irradiance. This involves determining whether there are any objects that would block rays of the sun from reaching the solar panel (i.e., cause shading), in order to determine if this component should be included in the total irradiance.

In addition to this, there are two types of “diffuse” or indirect irradiance that need to be accounted for: sky diffuse irradiance–the light reflected from the atmosphere, separate from direct rays of sunlight that fall on the panel, and ground-reflected diffuse irradiance, light that is reflected back up from the ground.

In order to calculate these three broad types of irradiance, it's also necessary to take into account the angle of the array and the direction to the sun relative to the panel.

There are three broad types of solar irradiance: direct beam irradiance, sky diffuse irradiance, and ground-reflected irradiance.  Aurora solar software models all three.There are three broad types of solar irradiance that must be included in calculations of the irradiance on a particular surface; these include direct irradiance from beams of the sun, as well as diffuse irradiance from both the sky and the ground.

Of these calculations, determining whether or not direct beams from the sun can reach the panel requires the most processing power. This is because shading from surrounding objects must be calculated based on the location of the sun at every daylight hour of the year–these calculations can quickly add up!

Determining Sunbeam Intersection

In order to determine whether the rays of the sun will directly hit a particular surface, one must first have an accurate understanding of the surroundings–including objects like trees, surrounding buildings and roof planes, and obstructions like skylights, vents, and chimneys. This is why the starting point for creating a solar design in Aurora is to construct a 3D model of the project site.

Aurora’s irradiance engine translates the fully modeled project site into simpler shapes, which are more conducive to computational processes by computers.

In order to calculate solar irradiance, Aurora solar software translates the project site into simpler shapes and checks if they block the sun's rays.Aurora translates the 3D model of the project sites into simpler shapes. Aurora then computes whether any of these component shapes will block the rays of the sun during each daylight hour of the year, one key component of calculating solar irradiance.

From there, Aurora’s irradiance engine computes the location of the sun, relative to the panel, for every daylight hour of the year; for each hour, it tests whether a beam from the sun to the panel hits any object in the scene. If the beam intersects with an object, that means it cannot reach that point on the surface and the direct beam irradiance component should not be included in the irradiance calculation (in other words, that location is shaded at that hour of the day).

To generate an irradiance map, Aurora intelligently samples different points on the roof. For performance simulations, Aurora computes the irradiance at specific points on each panel or cell string.

To calculate solar irradiance, Aurora solar software calculates whether any objects at the solar project site would block the rays of the sun at any given hour.Aurora solar software calculates whether any objects at the solar project site would block the rays of the sun at any given hour.

Making Our Irradiance Calculations 30 Times Faster

Because a project site can contain thousands of objects, and intersections with solar rays have to be calculated for every daylight hour of the year, the number of calculations that need to be computed can be significant.

There are generally over 5,000 daylight hours for a given location. This means that, for each point on the roof, over 5,000 potential sun locations must be simulated, and a complex project site could require irradiance calculations for as many as 100,000 to 500,000 points! As you can imagine then, running these processes one at a time could sometimes be a lengthy process–especially for very large or complicated sites. 

Computing "direct beam" solar irradiance requires a lot of processing power- especially for complex sites like this small city. Computing whether rays of the sun (direct beam irradiance) will reach a given point requires significant processing power, especially for complex sites like this one. By computing the many component processes in parallel (i.e., at the same time) Aurora solar software was able to deliver 30x improvements in the speed of irradiance map generation.

That’s why Aurora’s computation team set about developing an approach to enable Aurora to run many of these computations at the same time. This was done by utilizing Graphics Processing Units (GPUs).

In contrast to Central Processing Units, or CPUs, which you might be familiar with as the devices that perform most of the computing processes in your computer, GPUs are much better at performing thousands of calculation-heavy operations in parallel. This made it possible to dramatically speed up shading calculations.

By computing the intersections of the sun’s rays with thousands of objects in the scene in parallel (at the same time) rather than sequentially (one after the other), Aurora has been able to deliver 30x speed increases. To put this in context, irradiance for a large commercial project site of 7 MW PV system can now typically be calculated in under 20 seconds. And, of course, this is done while still maintaining the high shading accuracy that Aurora is known for.

Sign up for a demo to learn more about these features and see them in action.

Aurora's advanced solar design software has made it significantly easier for solar contractors and designers to determine how much solar energy is available to the solar arrays they design. Instead of having to visit the home or business of every prospective customer and take manual measurements from the roof or ground where the array would be located, this can now be done accurately with the click of a button. The National Renewable Energy Lab calculates this could save solar installers over $800 per system.

The next time you press “simulate” in Aurora, not only will you notice that the irradiance map generates much faster than you might expect, you’ll also have a better sense of what’s going on “under-the-hood” in the software. As we discussed in a recent post, being able to explain the power of your solar software tools is one way to help prospective customers understand the quality of your solar design processes–and feel more confident choosing your company for their solar installation.

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Topics: solar design, irradiance

Sunnova CEO John Berger on Solar Finance, Tips for Success, and More

Posted by Gwen Brown on Nov 15, 2018 6:49:07 PM

Sunnova Energy Corporation is one of the leading residential solar and storage service providers in the U.S. The company offers a broad portfolio of solar and solar plus storage offerings, including multiple PPA, lease, and loan financing options designed to help solar customers find the choice that works best for them. Sunnova pairs these product offerings with long-term service and maintenance agreements–which they see as fundamental to ensuring long-term customer satisfaction.

Sunnova operates in 18 states around the country, as well as several U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, Guam, and Saipan, and utilizes a dealer model, working with a select number of qualified regional partners that have first-hand knowledge of local markets.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Sunnova Founder and CEO William J. (John) Berger to learn from his two-plus decades of experience in the energy industry. Prior to Sunnova, Berger was Founder and CEO SunCap Financial, a residential solar system lease provider. He also founded Standard Renewable Energy (SRE), a top-10 provider of renewable energy and energy-efficient products and services.

In our interview, Berger offered insights into what solar financing options work best for customers and some of the trends he expects to see in solar finance, what Sunnova looks for in its installation partners, and tips for success in the solar industry. We’re excited to share those perspectives with you today. 

John Berger candid 1-sm-1

Based on your many years of experience in solar finance and Sunnova’s wide area of operations, do you notice any trends in what types of solar financing options are most appealing to customers in different contexts?

John Berger: Yes, I do, and I think the industry is going to see some movement on the financing side in the market as it reverts back to better reflect the balance of what financing options are best for each customer.

What we have seen and continue to see is that lease and PPA options are the most viable for most consumers–somewhere between 70 and 80% of the population. We see the proportion of customers with leases and PPAs trending back up and think the market will balance itself back out to a 70-30, maybe 80-20, split between customers with leases or PPAs and customers with loans.

To be clear, Sunnova is neutral about sales of loans, leases, and PPAs. It doesn’t matter to us what people choose; we're indifferent to that. But in terms of where I expect the customer base to balance out, that's my best estimate at this time–which points to roughly a 20% or more pick up in lease and PPA sales over the next few years.

Sunnova is unique in its model of working with a network of regional installation and maintenance partners that have firsthand knowledge of local markets. When Sunnova evaluates potential partners, what qualities and processes do you look for?

John Berger: That's a great question. I would say that what we're looking for above all else in our partners is honesty. They must understand the rules, in terms of consumer protection laws and the various geographic rules, and abide by them. I expect members of my company and our dealers and partners to adhere to the highest ethical standards, not just meeting the letter of the law but meeting the spirit of the law.

The second thing we're looking for is someone who can run a business. For example, partial payment for jobs in progress is not profit–don't spend it! We see that mistake over and over again.

Third, we also avoid partnering with companies that are trying to grow too fast. The telltale sign is somebody is who's trying to do a multi-state expansion without proper equity capital–which is usually far more than they think they need–all within the same year or two.

It's really problematic, and frankly, I have yet to see it really work. And I built a multi-state contracting business and sold it, so I understand the difficulties of doing that. The problem is you're trying to scale something, in terms of people, that's not scalable.

The most successful dealers that we have are methodical about their growth. Some years that growth is bigger than others, but they're methodical. This is a business where you're going to have to do a lot of hard work and build over a period of time. You're going to have to earn your reputation with customers, with communities. Nobody's perfect, and we’re no exception, but over a period of time you can be successful. It will not be overnight success.

“Get rich quick," has got to get out of people's heads. That's something that we've seen repeatedly in every market. We frown upon that quite a lot because we've seen the outcome and it's not good for the customer, for us, or for them. And, overall, it's not good for the industry.

Those are the top three things that we're looking for from partners: honesty, being able to run a business, and understanding that growth is something that occurs over years–not months. Beyond that, competency to install and sell solar is a given.

What's one piece of advice that you would give to every solar contractor?

John Berger: I think it goes back a lot of what we look for in those contractors. I would say that if you can run a good business, if you're an honest person, the thing that I would recommend is don't go out there with a "go big or go home" mentality. That's not the way it works, it ends in ruin.

I've seen heartache, heartbreak, partner bankruptcies over and over again for people that chase the flavor of the month, whether it’s a service provider they're teaming up with, a financing relationship, or something else. Nine times out of ten that ends in tears. Don't do it.

Focus on running the business, keeping your costs low, satisfying your customers, and pick long-term partners. Don't jump around all over the place; when you jump around, you can't meet your long-term customer relationship obligations.

So I would end with that, maybe that’s the bullet statement: think long-term. If you can do that you'll be successful.

 

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Please note that the views expressed in our Solar Spotlight interviews are those of the interviewee, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Aurora Solar.

Topics: Solar Spotlight, Solar Finance, Solar Business Tips

5 Ways to Make Solar Software Your Secret Weapon for Solar Sales

Posted by Gwen Brown on Nov 9, 2018 2:28:31 PM

Using cutting-edge solar software like Aurora gives you an advantage when it comes to the quality of your solar designs for your customer. But for prospective solar customers who may be unfamiliar with the solar design and installation process, it’s not always easy to understand how your solar design software sets you apart from competitors.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. When you can clearly communicate the benefits of your advanced design tools, you can help the customer see the value your company brings to the table–and ultimately close more sales. These five strategies make it easy for prospective solar customers to understand how Aurora sets your company apart.

1. Educate the Client with Stunning 3D Visuals

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that’s certainly true when it comes to solar sales. One of the easiest and most powerful ways to help the customer understand the quality of your design process with Aurora is to show them.

Aurora generates beautiful and accurate 3D representations of the project site and your solar design, letting the customer see exactly what their home or business will look like with your installation. These visuals can help them feel confident that they’ll be happy with the aesthetics of the PV system–a crucial consideration for an investment that will likely be with their property for the next 25 years.

A solar design in Aurora solar software (right), compared to aerial imagery (left).A solar design in Aurora (right) with an irradiance map showing solar access, compared to aerial imagery (left). Accurate visuals give customers a realistic sense of how their solar installation will look. 

Aurora visuals can also be helpful in educating the client about different solar design considerations. For instance, the sun path simulator, which shows the sun’s movement during every daylight hour of the year, can help illustrate how shade moves across the property at different times.

Similarly, Aurora’s irradiance engine calculates the available solar energy at every point on the roof surface and generates beautiful irradiance maps that show differences in solar access. These are great ways to help the customer understand why particular array locations are better than others.

 

Aurora solar software simulates the sun’s movement, and resulting shadows, during every hour of the year. The sun path animation illustrates this. Aurora simulates the sun’s movement, and resulting shadows, during every hour of the year. The sun path animation provides a handy visual representation of this. 

You can also use these tools to demonstrate options the customer might want to be know about. For instance, if trees cause a lot of shading, you could provide irradiance maps and production data for different scenarios, such if trees were pruned or removed.

See how Aurora helps solar companies grow revenue, cut costs, and impress their  customers!

2. Demonstrate Accurate Solar Sizing and Production Estimates with Industry-Leading Algorithms

Of course, even more than stunning visuals, the customer wants to know they can trust your expertise–particularly when it comes to the amount of energy that their system will produce and how much of their energy usage it will offset. Aurora has developed proprietary algorithms that allow you to estimate the customer’s energy usage and forecast solar production with confidence.

 Aurora gives you a variety of ways to estimate how much energy the customer uses at different times, such as inputting their electric bills or uploading data from their utility. This provides a strong starting point for determining how much solar energy the customer's needs.

 From there, Aurora makes it easy to precisely calculate how much energy the system will produce. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has validated the accuracy of Aurora’s shading engine, finding its estimates of available solar energy to be statistically equivalent to manual, onsite measurements. 

Aurora solar software helps solar contractors accurately determine the customer’s energy consumption and solar savings. Aurora helps solar contractors accurately determine the customer’s energy consumption and future solar energy production throughout the year.

Additionally, our algorithms for calculating solar energy production take into account a number of considerations other solar software programs don’t. For example, Aurora is the first solar software that can model electrical behavior within each module, accounting for the locations of bypass diodes. This also us one of the only softwares that can model panels with integrated cell-string optimizers like Maxim’s.

Likewise, many solar software programs do not model how different stringing configurations change energy production, such as if shaded modules are grouped together in a separate string. We also model whether the selected inverter performs local or global maximum powerpoint tracking.

While customers may not understand all of the technical details that impact how much energy their solar installation will produce, highlighting that you’re using one of the industry’s most advanced software programs tools for system sizing and energy production modeling can help close more solar sales.

3. Showcase Tools for Accurate Post-Solar Rates and Financial Returns

Most likely, one of the main reasons your prospective customer is interested in solar is to save money on their utility bills. That means the accuracy of the bill savings you present to them is of the utmost importance. Explaining how Aurora produces accurate estimates of their solar savings can help the customer be confident your design will deliver the savings they seek.

Aurora has an extensive database of utility rates–covering over 3,000 utilities and over 17,000 utility rates around the world–so you can accurately model your customer’s electricity bill and how it will change with solar. Aurora even models bill savings under time of use rates, in which the value of electricity varies depending on time of day. Utilizing accurate pre- and post-solar utility rates provides the client with a predictable future monthly bill and overall lifetime savings.

Aurora also offers financial modeling tools that allow you to show the customer key metrics like the Net Present Value (NPV), Internal Rate of Return (IRR), and Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE). Plus, Aurora has an extensive database of financial incentives, so you can take into account any applicable grants, tax rebates, or production based incentives (PBIs) like SRECs when presenting financial metrics to the customer.

4. Explain How Aurora Reduces Change Orders by Up to 100%

Your prospective customer probably also wants to know that the installation process will go smoothly–without unexpected errors, changes, or delays. You can highlight the wide variety of tools Aurora gives you to ensure design accuracy and avoid time-consuming change orders (revisions to the design) at a later date.

Aurora makes it easy to accurately model the project site–from the height and pitch of the roof to the presence of obstructions like skylights and vents. Aurora’s ruler tool makes it easy to confirm site dimensions. The ruler snaps to objects like building edges, obstructions, solar panels, carports and groundmounts and indicates their length. Additionally, Aurora allows you to specify required setbacks so that your panel placement doesn’t violate fire codes or jurisdiction requirements. Aurora will alert you of any violations.

Aurora Solar's ruler tool snaps to objects like roofs or solar panels making it easy to ensure the accuracy of your site model.
Aurora's ruler tool snaps to objects like roofs or solar panels making it easy to ensure the accuracy of your site model. 

If you have a premium account, you have even more cutting-edge tools to ensure accuracy, such as LIDAR, computer vision measurements, and even National Electrical Code (NEC) validation to ensure that your design doesn’t violate any electrical or mechanical constraints or industry best practices.

For the customer, all of this means that you are less likely to have to make design changes (change orders) later that add time and cost to the project. In fact, California contractor Solarponics reports that they have completely eliminated change orders since switching to Aurora!

Sign up for a free demo to see Aurora’s state-of-the-art remote solar design  tools

5. Highlight How Aurora Makes It Easy to Find the Best Design

Ultimately, your customer wants to know they’re getting the best solar design. Aurora’s solar software helps set your company apart by giving you an efficient design workflow that allows you to quickly and cost-effectively explore a variety of design options to find the best one.

For example, in Aurora, you can copy existing designs you’ve created and then make adjustments, letting you quickly iterate through different options, like incorporating microinverters or DC optimizers or using different panels. From there, you can quickly assess the energy production and financial returns of each design to find the best choice.

Companies with less efficient design processes may not have the time to explore multiple design options and find a custom solution. Highlighting this difference can give you a solar sales advantage.

You’ve made an investment in top-notch solar design tools that help you deliver high-quality solar installations to your customers, so why keep those tools under wraps? Discussing your design process can help the customer see what sets you apart from the competition.


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Do you have other strategies for highlighting the advantages of your solar design software in solar sales conversations? Let us know in the comments below!

Topics: solar design, Solar Sales

3 Tactics for Better Solar Designs Under Time of Use (TOU) Rates

Posted by Gwen Brown on Oct 25, 2018 6:33:07 PM

The promise of lower utility bills is typically a driving factor for individuals and businesses considering installing solar. Since the amount solar will save a customer depends heavily on local utility rates and solar compensation (e.g., net metering) policies, as a solar contractor, you need to have a solid understanding of both. You also need reliable systems to accurately assess customers’ solar savings.

Time of use rates–which charge different prices for electricity depending on the time of day–add additional complexity to determining solar savings and finding the best solar design for the customer. This is because, for net metered solar customers, the value of the energy their PV system produces also varies depending on the time it is sent to the grid. However, time of use rates are becoming more common, particularly in areas with high levels of installed solar.

For instance, in California, all commercial, industrial, and agricultural customers are already required to be on a time of use (TOU) rate plan and residential customers will be transitioned to these rates starting in 2019. Under these conditions, how can solar contractors design PV systems that maximize their customers’ solar savings?

There are several strategies that can help you design the best PV system for your customer’s TOU rate. Applying them can translate into measurable differences in solar savings, which can help make your solar proposals more competitive.

1. Start with integrated system design and financial analysis tools

One of the first considerations for finding the best design for TOU rates is to make sure you’re using software tools that will let you easily and accurately determine how different design choices will impact the financial returns of your project.

The structure of TOU rates can vary widely, with important differences in the time periods when different pricing applies. TOU rates can be very favorable for solar customers if peak price hours coincide with when PV systems produce the most, as was historically the case in California.

In other cases, like when peak price hours occur in the evening, TOU rates can reduce solar savings. This is the case for new, later TOU rates being rolled out in California (a depiction of this change for a San Diego Gas and Electric rate is shown in Figure 1 below).

An example of different TOU rate structures. The timing of different price periods has a big impact on the PV customer's solar savingsFigure 1. An example of different TOU rate structures. The chart on the left reflects SDG&E’s DR-SES rate, a special time of use rate for solar customers, prior to changes implemented December 1, 2017. On the right is the newer version of the same rate which went into effect December 1, 2017; peak hours were shifted to the evening.

Sign up for a free demo to see how Aurora makes modeling utility rates simple.

To get an accurate understanding of your customer’s savings, your financial modeling tools must take into account how much the PV system will produce at different times, combined with the exact structure of your customer’s TOU rate.

Beyond that, integrated solar design and financial analysis software can make a big difference in your ability to explore a variety of options to maximize your customer’s savings. This will allow you to quickly see how system design changes or alternative utility rates (discussed below) affect project economics.

An example of a time of use rate in Aurora Solar's utility rate database. Figure 2. An example of a time of use rate in Aurora Solar’s database. Each number represents a different price tier; you can see how energy prices vary by time of day, as well as seasonally. Aurora has an extensive rate database–over 3,000 utilities and over 17,000 utility rates around the world, plus the option to add new ones. Combined with Aurora’s solar design and financial analysis tools, this facilitates informed TOU design decisions.

2. Get smart about post-solar rate choices

A second key consideration for saving your customer the most money with their solar installation is to familiarize yourself with all of their utility rate choices and assess the financial implications of different rates.

In some cases, the solar customer only has one potential rate that they are eligible for–but other times (as for some PG&E customers) there are multiple options. Choosing the best rate can significantly improve the economics of the project.

If your customer has a choice between rates make sure to explore the financial implications of different options. In a case study of a solar design for a medium-sized office building in PG&E territory in California (illustrated below), we found that choosing a different post-solar rate resulted in over $42,000 in additional savings over the lifetime of the project.

In addition to the fact that increased savings can make your proposal more compelling for the customer, this kind of expertise can distinguish your company in the sales process.

When solar customers have multiple utility rate options, choosing the right one can increase solar savings Figure 3. A case study of a solar design for a medium-sized office building in PG&E territory in California where there were multiple post-solar rate options. In this case, choosing the E-19 TOU rate resulted in over $42,000 more savings for the customer over the lifetime of the project and a multiple percentage point increase in the Internal Rate of Return (IRR) compared to the A-10 TOU rate.
 
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3. Explore alternative azimuths for your PV design

Finally, solar designers can also experiment with different azimuths (or orientations) for their solar design in order to adjust the timing of some of the array’s production. For example, if a system is facing west, it may produce less overall but have more production later in the day. In cases where peak hours are late in the day, there may be times when this makes sense.

An example of different solar production profiles resulting from changes in the array azimuth. Changing the azimuth can sometimes help increase savings under TOU ratesFigure 4. An example of the production profiles (the distribution of energy production at different times of the day) of PV systems with different azimuths.

Again, using an integrated program for solar design and financial analysis makes assessing the merit of these kinds of design changes a lot easier–because you’ll more easily be able to compare the value of the solar energy produced, overall system production, and other financial metrics like payback period.


The rise of solar energy and other broader changes in the electricity grid are spurring the exploration of new rate structures by utilities around the country. While time of use rates may not have arrived in your area yet, they are likely to be a more common phenomenon in the future. Getting smart about how to maximize your customers' savings under time of use rates can help you stay ahead of the curve.

To learn more about the design strategies discussed in this article, and see  them implemented, check out our on-demand webinar with Solar Power World!

Topics: Solar Utility Bill

Module-Level Power Electronics (MLPE) for Solar Design: A Primer

Posted by Gwen Brown on Oct 18, 2018 2:02:09 PM

Solar contractors face many decisions when it comes to finding the best solar design. One important consideration is determining whether to use module-level power electronics (microinverters or DC optimizers).

Once costly specialty products, module-level power electronics have made great strides in the last decade and are rapidly growing in popularity. And there’s good reason for that! Incorporating these devices can offer a number of design benefits.

In today’s article, we explore some of the benefits of module-level power electronics and take a closer look at each type and where they fit within a PV system design.

What Are Module-Level Power Electronics (MLPE)?

Module-level power electronics (MLPE) are devices that can be incorporated into a solar PV system to improve its performance in certain conditions (especially where shade is present) and to achieve a number of other solar design benefits. MLPE include microinverters and DC power optimizers. They perform some of the same functions as a string inverter or central inverter, but are typically coupled to just one (or a few) solar modules rather than many, and offer additional features. 

Solar panels in shade- a common reason for integrating MLPE into a solar designFigure 1. Even partial shade, as shown here, can significantly reduce the power output of a solar array; MLPE–including microinverters and DC optimizers–can mitigate these performance losses, among other benefits. 

Why Use MLPE?

There are a number of reasons why incorporating MLPE into your solar designs can be a good option. One of the primary reasons is to improve the energy production of the system. MLPE can help mitigate production losses from a variety of different factors such as shading, module mismatch losses, and orientation mismatch losses (for instance, if you have panels on different roof planes).

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy explains that MLPE can reduce energy losses due to partial shading of modules by 20%–35% and they completely eliminate losses due to orientation mismatch of PV modules.

Additional benefits of MLPE include providing compliance with module-level rapid shutdown requirements under the National Electrical Code (NEC), safety benefits, and typically longer warranties than for traditional inverters. Most MLPE products also come with performance monitoring and diagnostic functionality, which can be valuable in making sure the system is producing as expected or pinpointing technical issues.

Solar contractors may want to weigh these benefits against possible higher up-front costs and increased installation labor.

How Do MLPE Improve PV System Performance?

MLPE can improve the energy production of a solar PV system by performing maximum power point tracking at the module level, rather than at the array level as would be the case with a string inverter. Maximum power point tracking (MPPT) refers to how inverters (and MLPE) instruct a solar panel or array to operate at a specific current and voltage combination that maximizes power output.

Inverters and DC optimizers perform maximum power point tracking by responding to changes in the current and voltage of the solar installation (for example, a decrease in current resulting from shade falling on the panel). They respond to these changes by adjusting the voltage to maximize power output. (For a deeper discussion of this process, and the relationship between current, voltage, and power, see our article on global MPPT.)

In a system with a string inverter and no MLPE, shade or soiling on one module can decrease the power output of the entire string. This is because, as detailed in our overview of shading losses, the current through the string is limited to the current of the lowest-producing module. In contrast, in systems with microinverters or DC optimizers, each module produces at its maximum level regardless of shading on other modules on the string because these devices offer module-level MPPT functionality.

DC Power Optimizers

DC power optimizers, commonly called DC optimizers, are attached to the junction box of individual solar modules, or in the case of some “smart modules” may be integrated directly into the module. These devices maximize the module’s DC power output before that power is converted to AC power by an inverter. As discussed above, they achieve this by providing MPPT at the module level, so that each module produces at its maximum level regardless of shading on other modules on the string.

When using DC optimizers, a string inverter is still required to convert the energy produced from DC to AC (see Figure 4 below for a comparison of system configurations with DC optimizers, microinverters, and traditional string inverters).

Figure 2. An example of DC optimizer products. Source: Tigo. The products pictured are part of Tigo’s TS4 Platform. Pictured on the left is the back of an integrated smart module in which a DC optimizer is installed before the module leaves the factory. On the right is an add-on optimizer which can be fitted to a standard module. Click on the image to view Tigo’s video guide to optimizer installation.

Discussing the benefits of her company’s DC optimizers, Gal Bauer, Director of Customer Care at Tigo, a leading MLPE manufacturer, explained that “Tigo’s DC-DC optimizers–the integrated TS4-O and the retrofit/add-on TS4-R-Oincrease solar production, reduce shade impacts, prevent burnt diodes, and delay other aging effects that degrade a system’s performance over time. Tigo’s optimizers also include matched module warranties as well as a built-in UL-certified rapid shutdown solution and module-level monitoring with sophisticated alerts. These unique features purposefully keep costs of ownership at record lows and revenues at record highs for our customers.”

Microinverters

As their name implies, microinverters are similar to traditional inverters but operate just one or, in some cases, a few modules rather than the full array. Like a string inverter or central inverter, they convert the DC power produced by the panels to AC power that can be sent to the grid and used in the home.

In addition to the benefits of MLPE discussed above, such as improving performance through module-level MPPT, microinverters can offer increased design flexibility. For instance, systems with microinverters can more easily be expanded at a later date if that is something the customer is considering (such as if they purchase an electric vehicle). Whereas string inverters have specific string length requirements, those considerations are avoided in systems with microinverters. Additionally, while not something you would commonly design, microinverters would allow for different types of modules to be used in the same system. 

An example of a microinverter from EnphaseFigure 3. An example of a microinverter. Source: Enphase. Click on the image to view an Enphase instructional video on the installation process for their microinverters.

How Do MLPE Fit Into Your Solar Design?

Both microinverters and DC Optimizers are attached to individual modules in your solar array (though as referenced above, there are some microinverters that operate multiple panels). If using microinverters, you will not need a string inverter for the system. If you are using DC optimizers, the panels will be connected in series to a string inverter. The figure below compares the installation configurations for these two options to a design without MLPE.

MLPE Configuration Graphic V2Figure 4. An illustration of PV system configurations depending on whether MLPE options like DC optimizers or microinverters are used. As you can see, DC optimizers still require a string inverter, while microinverters do not. Both options are typically connected to individual solar panels. Source: Aurora. 
 
In contrast to systems with microinverters, in which every panel must be connected to a microinverter, DC optimizers can sometimes be deployed selectively. This is the case for Tigo’s selective deployment capabilities, in which MLPE devices that perform different functions can be attached to specific modules as needed. For instance, if shading only affects selected modules in your system, DC optimizers could be added to those specific modules so that they will not bring down the power output of the rest of the string.

Finding the optimal PV design for your customer can be a challenging proposition, but being aware of the diverse benefits of different components can help. Module-level power electronics can be a great option to maximize system performance, enable greater design flexibility, and capture other benefits. As with all design considerations, being able to quantify the performance impacts with accurate solar design software like Aurora can help ensure that you’re making the best design choices for the customer.

With integrated financial analysis tools, Aurora can also help you to understand if a potential increase in the up-front cost of the system is justified based on the value of the additional energy that the system will produce. Aurora models the precise impacts of DC optimizers and microinverters based on manufacturer specifications and is a leader in accurate modeling of complex MLPE functionality. For instance, we were the first software to simulate Selective Deployment of Tigo’s optimization.

The next time you confront solar design challenges like shade, modules on different roof faces, or the need to support future expansion of the PV system, consider MLPE as a possible solution.

Topics: solar design

Turning Solar Support Into Solar Sales: 5 Tactics for Effective Communication

Posted by Gwen Brown on Oct 9, 2018 2:58:08 PM

People view solar and other renewable energy sources positively–according to SEIA, nine out of ten Americans support the growth of solar and a majority favor renewable energy over fossil fuels. Yet that support doesn’t always translate into action.

So how do we communicate about solar in a way that drives action?

That was the focus of one of the key panel discussions at SPI 2018. The General Session “Turning Positive Solar Attitudes to Positive Results” kicked off the first full day of SPI. SEIA President and CEO Abby Hopper moderated the panel, which featured an impressive lineup.

The three panelists included marketing and branding expert Omar Johnson–former Chief Marketing Officer at both Apple and Beats by Dr. Dre., former White House Communications Director and CNN Contributor Jen Psaki, and Matt Lewis, author and Senior Columnist for the Daily Beast.

The panel highlighted a number of specific tactics that solar supporters can use in their communications to more effectively drive action in support of solar. The conversation focused on industry-level communication to help grow the solar industry as a whole. However, many of these strategies could also apply at an individual and company level to engage more persuasively with prospective customers.

We identified five key strategies for effective communication about solar based on the panel discussion. Try incorporating these tactics in your solar sales and marketing efforts to connect with new audiences and convert more prospects into customers.

1. Use Culture to Connect

One of the recurring themes of the panel discussion was the importance of cultural identity.

Matt Lewis of the Daily Beast emphasized that “We don’t just act rationally”–identity, faith, tribe, and community are hugely powerful drivers of our actions. He argued that “culture is more important than politics, community,” and many other factors in shaping people’s behavior.

Lewis believes that a key deciding factor in whether people will support solar is whether they see it as something for people who are like them. He cautioned that if we want solar to have broad support, we must ensure that it doesn’t become seen as an option just for “latte-drinking liberals.”  

Lewis suggested that one of the best ways to connect with new audiences is to share stories of people that they identify with who have adopted solar.

Applying it to your business: Highlight the stories of a variety of diverse customers, making it clear that solar energy is for everyone–from low-income customers, to customers of different cultural backgrounds, to non-profit customers, and many others.

2. Highlight Human Stories

We often think that data, hard numbers and facts, are the best way to persuade. But the panelists underscored that data may not be nearly as effective as connecting with people on a human level.

This point was highlighted by Jen Psaki, former White House Communications Director, who summed it up as “Data doesn’t drive people; people drive people.”

Couple with solar panels - share human storiesAccording to the panelists of the SPI 2018 General Session “Turning Positive Solar Attitudes to Positive Results,” sharing the human stories behind solar can be one of the most effective communication strategies to build support for solar. 

Psaki explained that when she worked on the White House communication strategy to build support for the Affordable Care Act, they initially focused their communications on cost savings data, sharing many charts and graphs. But they ended up realizing that was a mistake because it didn’t communicate the human impacts. “What made a difference was when we shared human stories, how lives were saved,” she explained.

Omar Johnson, former CMO of Apple and Beats, remarked that “The last thing you’re going to win on is data.” He commented that people are bombarded with so many different pieces of information on a daily basis that–especially if they're skeptical of your message– they’ll easily find other sources that contradict your arguments.

Applying it to your business: Putting your message in terms of the human impacts of solar–how it tangibly benefits your customers–however, can help connect with people in a way they’ll remember and be more open to considering. That could range from a blog post about how solar savings are helping a non-profit provide important community services to a video testimonial from a customer about how solar has benefitted their family. 

3. Drive Action with Emotion

Another related takeaway from the panel was the importance of emotion in your communication. Whether it’s positive emotions like nostalgia or more negative ones like fear and greed, all of the panelists agreed that emotion is a powerful driver of action.

Johnson explained that simple emotional messages are a valuable tool for effective communication because they easily cut across group lines. For instance, “we all want more for ourselves and our families” so that can be one angle for explaining the value of solar. Psaki remarked that urgency is also a powerful emotion for driving action–people act when they feel they may lose out on something, or have something taken away.

Applying it to your business: Explore opportunities to incorporate emotion in your messaging. For instance, as the deadline approaches for reduction of the Investment Tax Credit, incorporating an element of urgency in your communications might drive customers who are on the fence to take action to install solar.  

Drive Action with Emotion- Woman reading utility billConnecting with people through emotions they can relate to like... stress over utility bills, can be an effective communication strategy. 

4. Know Your Audience

The panelists also emphasized the importance of understanding the audience you’re trying to reach with a particular message, and tailoring your message to what they care about.

Psaki shared an anecdote about her work at the White House leading their communications around climate change. Through research, they realized the message that most resonated with women focused on the health impacts of climate change. When talking to farmers, they found that discussing “the changing climate” was much more effective than talking about “climate change.”

These kinds of insights, whether from market research or just getting out and talking with the groups of people your solar company is trying to sell to, can be incredibly powerful in helping you find the marketing or sales message that works.

In some cases, that might mean changing your strategy. As Psaki said, “Sometimes when you have new information, you need to throw out your old assumptions about how to reach people.”

Applying it to your business: Question your assumptions about what different audiences care about and seek out opportunities to understand those groups better (surveys, customer conversations, etc.).

5. Sell a Solution, Not a Product

Finally, another strategy for effective communication about the value solar offers is to think bigger. Instead of framing your marketing and sales initiatives around why people should buy a solar installation, think about putting your message in terms of the solution you’re offering.

Discussing his own decision to install solar and energy storage, Omar Johnson explained that he wanted solar so his family would have power in the case of a prolonged outage. That security for his family was the solution he was looking for, so messages that put that front and center would have been the most effective with him.

Applying it to your business: Once you understand what your audience cares about, highlight the value of solar in terms of the solutions they’re seeking, such as greater financial freedom, resilience, or sustainability.


Taking a leaf out of these experts’ playbooks can help you communicate more effectively about the value of solar–both to close more solar sales and to help grow support for the industry as a whole. To paraphrase one of the concluding comments of the panel, “As the pie gets bigger, there’s more for everyone.” Here’s to growing support for clean solar energy!

 

Do you have other tactics for effective communication about solar? Let us know in the comments below!

 

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Topics: Solar Sales, Solar Marketing

Powering SPI: A Design for Anaheim Convention Center

Posted by Gwen Brown on Oct 5, 2018 5:42:00 PM

The Aurora Solar team had a great time at Solar Power International (SPI) last week. SPI is the largest solar event in North America. With attendees from over 3000 companies and hundreds of exhibitors showcasing the latest in solar technologies, Anaheim Convention Center was abuzz with activity for SPI 2018!

With all the energy it takes to power such a huge event (at the largest convention center on the West Coast), we were happy to know that some of that energy was coming from clean solar power–quite appropriate!

To keep the fun of the conference going, we took a few minutes to model Anaheim Convention Center’s solar installation in Aurora. In this installment of our Solar Landmark series–where we model solar PV systems for landmarks around the world–we used Aurora’s new and improved design capabilities to quickly generate this large design. It took Aurora’s Research Engineer, Andrew Gong, only about 10 minutes to complete! Here’s how he did it.

About the System

The 2.4 megawatt array on the rooftop of the convention center was installed in 2014. According to the contractor that installed it, the system utilizes 7,908 Yingli Solar panels, Sunlink Core RMS racking, and Advanced Energy 500NX inverters. It is owned by the Anaheim Public Utilities (APU) and the City of Anaheim and helps APU meet its mandate to source 33% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Aerial View of Anaheim Convention Center, the site of SPI 2018An aerial view of the solar array on Anaheim Convention Center, the site of SPI 2018. Source: Google Maps.

Modeling the Project Site

Constructing the Buildings

To create an accurate design, we began by constructing a precise 3D model of the convention center. To do this in Aurora, we started by outlining the edges of the buildings in satellite imagery using Aurora’s SmartRoof Tool.

top-down view of a model of Anaheim Convention Center, created in AuroraA top-down view of our site model of Anaheim Convention Center. You can see the outlines of the buildings in white. Based on these outlines, Aurora generated a 3D version of the site. 

Based on the building outlines, Aurora’s SmartRoof Technology generated 3D versions of the buildings. One advantage of the SmartRoof tool is the ability to construct the building from several simpler parts, which SmartRoof then merges together. 

Additionally, because the building has three similar sections (the sections where the solar arrays are located in the image above), we were able to save time by modeling one and then copying it to create the other two sections. This allowed ups to create those sections of the building with just had to make a couple of slight manual modifications.

Aurora Solar's design tools allow you to duplicate sections of a building to save time designingTo save time creating the site model for the convention center, we duplicated similar sections of the site and adjusted them as needed. In this demonstration, you can also see how Aurora's SmartRoof tool allows designers to construct a larger building out of simpler parts which it then merges together. 

Aurora reDesigned, our latest software update, made it easy for us to view the building from different angles:

Viewing our Site Model of Anaheim Convention Center - Aurora transitions smoothly from  2D to 3DAurora reDesigned allows seamless transitions from 2D to 3D views of a project. 

Once the structure of the buildings was complete, we had to make sure that the model included any obstructions on the roof–such as skylights and HVAC units–that would prevent the placement of panels.

To save time, we took advantage of Aurora’s automatic obstruction detection tool. Powered by computer vision, this tool allows the designer to model one obstruction which Aurora uses to find all other obstructions like it on the roof.

Ensuring Accuracy with LIDAR

Once we had a complete model of the site, we used LIDAR to ensure the accuracy of the site. If you’re not familiar, LIDAR data creates a detailed 3D map of the heights of structures in an area, like buildings and trees. The LIDAR data used for these purposes is typically gathered by planes that ping an area with lasers and measure how long they each beam takes to return to a sensor (similar to SONAR but using lasers instead of sound pulses).

LIDAR for Anaheim Convention Center as shown in Aurora SolarLIDAR shows the topography of this area, allowing us to confirm the accuracy of our model of Anaheim Convention Center, where SPI 2018 took place. 

We used Aurora’s “Fit Buildings to LIDAR option” to ensure that our model matched the actual building details. With that, we had a complete and accurate 3D model of Anaheim Convention Center–an excellent starting point for designing a solar installation suited to the site.

Designing the Installation

Before placing panels, we used Aurora’s walkway tool to add appropriate walkways to ensure compliance with local codes. Once walkways have been placed, Aurora will avoid placing panels in those areas, even when automatically filling the roof face.

Placing Walkways on the roof of Anaheim Convention Center to ensure an accurate solar design in AuroraPlacing walkways in Aurora. 

We then used Aurora’s panel placement tool to quickly place solar panels in the available space. This tool allowed us to click and drag to automatically place panels while avoiding obstructions. The results, modeled on the existing array, are shown below.

The final solar PV design for the site of SPI 2018, as modeled in AuroraThe final design of Anaheim Convention Center's solar system. 

And there you have it! A recreation of the solar array on Anaheim Convention Center, modeled in about 10 minutes. This impressive system produces approximately 302,192 kWh each month and 3,626,310 kWh per year. It offsets 17% of the convention center’s energy needs–making this a great site for an event like SPI!

Aurora's Solar  Design for Anaheim Convention CenterThe final design in Aurora; the yellow shows irradiance on the rooftop. 

As more commercial customers consider solar to help them cut costs and show commitment to sustainability (a recurring topic of SPI panels this year), design tools that support fast but accurate designs can help solar contractors better serve this growing segment.

 


Notes: Since this was just a quick educational exercise, we didn’t delve into some later steps of the design process, like stringing, modeling energy production, and financial analysis. 

Sign up for a demo to learn more about these features and see them in action.

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Research Engineer Andrew Gong for designing this system in Aurora.

 

Topics: Solar Landmarks

Lessons for Success from the 2018 Top Solar Contractors List

Posted by Gwen Brown on Sep 28, 2018 1:27:01 PM

Each year, Solar Power World compiles a list of the Top Solar Contractors in the U.S., based on the kilowatt capacity of projects they installed, developed, or helped construct in the previous year. We were thrilled to see many companies on the 2018 list that use Aurora solar design and sales software. We reached out to these companies to get their insights for running a successful solar business.

In response to our question, “What advice and tips would you give to solar companies to operate successfully?” we saw several themes emerge. The responses we received from our customers highlighted quality and credibility, adaptability, and value as key factors in solar contractors’ success.

If you’re considering what your company can do to maximize success in the solar industry read on for advice from some of the most prolific U.S. solar installation companies in 2018.

Quality and Credibility

Perhaps unsurprisingly, quality and credibility were two of the key factors for solar company success highlighted by the solar contractors we spoke with. Specifically, contractors highlighted the need to have a thorough understanding of all aspects of your customer’s solar purchase.

Craig Pals, cofounder of Tick Tock Energy, Inc.–a family-owned solar company in Illinois, founded in 2006–summed up his advice for solar companies in one word: “Credibility.” Elaborating on some of the elements that go into that, he recommended that contractors, “Thoroughly understand electric bills and rates, [and deliver] product knowledge, financial understanding, construction expertise, great customer service, etc.”

Knowledge of Utility Rates and Other Financial Considerations

Having a strong understanding of local utility rates and other financial considerations that impact how much your customer will save was a recurring theme among the solar contractors we spoke to on the SPW Top List. Bernard Froidcoeur, owner of GreenForm-Austin, summed this up by encouraging contractors to “Understand local incentives and solar rate structures from utilities.”

Bill savings are typically a driving motivator for prospective solar customers, yet net metering and utility rate structures can be confusing. Similarly, federal, state, and local incentives that will impact the cost of their system are important information for customers to understand. You can establish your credibility by being the expert who walks them through these elements. (Our Solar Finance 101 series provides a helpful primer to bring new staff up to speed or to teach your customers.)

Using software like Aurora that supports financial analysis and includes an extensive utility rate and incentive database can help with ensuring accuracy. However, contractors still need to keep close watch on utility policies and rates to stay abreast of changes (like new net metering structures or California’s time of use rate changes).

Subscribe to the Aurora Blog for updates on solar policy changes and utility  rate trends!

Design and Installation Expertise

The quality of the solar designs installers offer was another key theme highlighted by companies on the Top Contractors List. Peter Hughes, Owner and Business Director of Sunwatt Solar, a company that designs and installs solar systems in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, encouraged contractors to “Always start each opportunity with an accurate TSRF. It will save you time and help to narrow your focus on the most promising deals.”

Kyle Frazier, Director of Sales at Freedom Solar Power, a Texas-based commercial solar company, said “We believe that the only path to long-term success is to deliver the highest quality product and experience to every customer so that they are happy enough to refer us to their friends and neighbors and co-workers. That means under-promising during the sales process and over-delivering on the project by doing all of the work in-house and doing the job right the first time.”

“We believe that the only path to long-term success is to deliver the highest quality product and experience to every customer so that they are happy enough to refer us to their friends and neighbors and co-workers." - Kyle Frazier, Freedom Solar Power

Jeff Parr, President and Owner of Solar Technologies–which has installed over 75,000 solar power systems across California’s Bay Area–said “Once you have new business, you have to make sure you are following through on the expectations set and that your team has the experience to manage design and engineering, interconnections, installations, job-site safety, and system maintenance. Your reputation precedes you through social media and any deficiencies will be called out by customers and jeopardize future growth and success.”

Baker Home Energy, another company on the list, offered similar advice when we spoke with them earlier this year about how they get 60% of their business from referrals.

"Your reputation precedes you through social media and any deficiencies will be called out by customers and jeopardize future growth and success.” - Jeff Parr, President and Owner of Solar Technologies

Adaptability

Another requirement for solar contractor success highlighted by Aurora customers on the Top Contractors list was the ability to adapt. Given the frequent policy changes and macroeconomic shifts that contribute to the so-called “solar coaster,” solar companies need to be flexible and stay on top of new approaches to succeed under different market conditions.Bruce_Orozco-Solar_Source-v2

Adaptability is key. The solar industry evolves more frequently than most. Being able to stay current on technology, codes, and methods is a requirement for success,” said Bruce Orozco, Production Engineer at Solar Source, a residential and commercial installer serving Florida’s Tampa Bay area.

Similarly, Brett Emes, Owner of SEM Power, LLC, a Florida-based solar installation company and EPC, advised solar contractors to “Differentiate yourself from your competition by constantly innovating and finding more cost-effective methods to implement solar for your customers. As soon as your competition starts copying you, innovate again to gain market advantage over your competition.”

Larry_Beiler-Paradise_Energy-v2

Larry Beiler, Estimating Manager at Paradise Energy Solutions–a Pennsylvania-based solar contractor serving Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Ohio, and Virginia–echoed this sentiment. 

Be adaptable. The solar industry is constantly changing with new and improved products, incentive adjustments, and new markets. Software is one area of many that has changed dramatically in the last five years.”

Software solutions, including remote solar design tools like Aurora, are one way solar companies are adapting to work more efficiently under tighter profit margins. Solarponics, another Aurora customer on the Top Contractors List, was able to cut their site visits by 90% and save approximately $500 per lead by switching to Aurora for remote assessment and design.

See how Aurora helps Baker Electric Solar stand out in a crowded solar market

Value

The final theme that emerged from many of the solar contractors we spoke with was the importance of differentiating your company based on the value your services provide–not necessarily having the cheapest product.

Jeff Parr, explained that “At Solar Technologies we try to focus on people, products, and price. All of these have to be aligned in order to deliver compelling value to home and business owners so you can win new business.”

Brett Emes of SEM Power is one of the SPW top 500 Contractors who provided advice

Kyle Frazier of Freedom Solar Power said “Our advice for other solar companies is to focus on sustainable, profitable, controlled growth that is focused on your customers, rather than chasing higher-volume but lower-quality sales channels.”

Likewise, Graham Alexander, Senior Residential Energy Specialist at Southern Energy Management–a certified B-Corporation serving North Carolina–emphasized, “Don't fight to be the lowest price solution with the lowest price products.  Maintain your value and allow your clients to be your best marketing resource.

Graham Alexander of Southern Energy is one of the SPW top 500 Contractors who provided advice.Parr also advised companies to “Take it slow, plot a strategic path forward, manage your cash, and walk away from low-margin business. You will not get rich quick in this business but if you focus on providing your customers with a high quality offering at a fair price, seek out great employees to help you on your journey, manage your business to ensure viability and commit to this industry long-term you will end up with a rewarding enterprise that is helping customers save and improving the environment for all.”


Congratulations to the companies that made Solar Power World’s Top Contractors List! We were thrilled to see so many Aurora users represented on the list, and appreciate those customers taking the time to share the strategies that play a role in their success. Are there other strategies you’ve found to be important to your success in the solar contracting industry? Let us know in the comments below!

 Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to the Aurora Blog for our latest updates!

 

P.S. If you enjoyed this article about strategies for success, you may be interested in some of our related articles, including our interview with Pamela Cargill on how solar companies can operate more efficiently, and our discussion of solar sales mistakes to avoid from Nancy Reynolds at Clean Energy Design, LLC.

Topics: Solar Business Tips

reDesigning Aurora for Speed, Simplicity, and Scale

Posted by Gwen Brown on Sep 25, 2018 7:00:00 AM

In 2011, grad school classmates Sam Adeyemo and Chris Hopper discovered a shared interest in advancing solar energy in emerging markets and teamed up to design and install a solar installation for a boarding school in Kenya. Designing a PV system for a site on another continent made it clear how challenging solar design can be–and how how much the design process could be improved with the right tools.

With the idea of building the solar design software they wished they’d had, one that offered the accuracy to confidently design without site visits, Sam and Chris launched Aurora Solar in 2013. In the five years since that time, Aurora has grown from a small company whose entire team fit at one table to an industry-leading solar design company trusted by top solar firms around the world. We’ve achieved a lot that we’re proud of, from creating the first solar design program to model the electrical behavior of a solar installation down to the cell-string level to bringing new technologies like computer vision and solar design automation to the solar sector.

We’ve also learned a lot along the way, listening to customers to understand how we could better serve their needs. As we looked toward the future of the solar industry and how we could help the industry grow, we realized there were opportunities to serve solar contractors better if we reimagined our design tools from the ground up. To deliver a best-in-class solar design experience, we set about rewriting the very code our design software is built on.

After nearly two years of development, Aurora is thrilled to release its most significant update ever–a new version of our software that hits the sweet spot between accuracy, speed, scale, and simplicity.

Get ready for Aurora reDesigned.

Simplicity

We’ve heard from customers that they love the accuracy Aurora enables–from constructing a representative model of the project site to precisely determining irradiance and solar energy production, as well as its compelling visuals. But sometimes a high-level of precision can make the design process complex. As we redesigned Aurora, we focused on approaches to maximize simplicity and ease of use. We worked closely with designers to streamline the software interface and improve user experience.

Drawing from some of the same approaches that enable video games to render incredible 3D visuals, we built a fully 3D design experience that allows solar designers to seamlessly transition from 2D views to 3D views of the project site model and PV design. In addition to viewing the site model and solar installation from any angle, designers can make modifications in 3D making accurate design easier. For instance, you can easily see the height of the roof in comparison to surrounding features like trees, and adjust accordingly, without having to toggle between 2D and 3D tools.

for Simplicity-5With integrated site model and system design tools, as well as the ability to edit both in 3D and view the project from any angle, the latest version of Aurora offers greater simplicity for solar design.

We also combined our tools for creating a model of the project site and designing the PV system into a single section of the application. This reduces the need to switch between tools if you need to adjust the site model or the design.

Finally, recognizing that the process of stringing panels to inverters can be quite complicated, with many different stringing configurations to choose from, we developed new tools to simplify the process. With automated stringing functionality, solar designers no longer need to ponder the optimal stringing configuration that will match inverter input requirements (acceptable string lengths and number of inputs) while maximizing the number of panels and minimizing costs.

Simplicity highlights of Aurora reDesigned:

  • Seamlessly transition between views of the project, including moving from 2D to 3D
  • Site model and solar design tools combined into one streamlined section
  • New automated stringing functionality saves designers the headache of identifying the optimal stringing configuration

Speed

Another key focus for us was delivering speed upgrades to our customers. It takes significant computing power to generate and manipulate hundreds or thousands of elements–like roof obstructions, solar panels, and inverters–while also maintaining accuracy. Yet speed is key to enabling efficient design, particularly when designing large, multi-megawatt commercial solar installations.

By rebuilding our CAD functionality and incorporating state-of-the-art graphics technology, we were able to deliver 10x performance upgrades for large solar projects. Discussing the new updates, Matthew Gschwend, Senior Solar Analyst at NRGTree in Boston, says “Even more impressive than all the design tools is the processing power, which allows you to create a site model, lay out your system, and run production simulations quicker than ever.”

Another change we implemented to reduce design time was integrating Aurora’s performance simulation tools–which precisely calculate the expected solar energy production of the PV system–into the design stage. You can now simulate the energy production of your design as you’re designing, allowing for real-time understanding of the performance implications of different design approaches.

Aurora redesigned, Aurora Solar's biggest update, speeds up solar designOne way we’ve helped solar designers speed up their workflows in Aurora reDesigned is by making it possible to assess the energy production of a design from within the design tool.

Speed highlights of Aurora reDesigned:

  • 10X performance upgrades for multi-megawatt, commercial-scale solar projects
  • The ability to simulate solar energy production while designing the PV system, allowing real-time assessment of the performance impacts of different design choices

Scale

When we first started building our software in 2013, we began with a focus on the residential solar market. As we grew, we added both commercial solar design functionality as well as financial analysis tools for commercial customers, allowing us to serve the needs of C&I contractors as well. However, designing massive systems on a platform originally built for smaller projects could sometimes be challenging.

By rewriting our software code to utilize a new approach optimally suited for rendering 3D graphics on the web, we created a solar design platform that supports the creation and manipulation of large, multi-megawatt solar designs as easily as for smaller residential designs.

Aurora reDesigned update enables support of larger scale, multi-megawatt C&I solar projectsAn example of the multi-megawatt projects easily supported in Aurora reDesigned.

We also built out a number of new, cutting-edge tools specifically designed for the challenges of large-scale solar designs. For instance, we’ve enhanced Aurora’s automatic obstruction detection, which automatically identifies similar obstructions on a roof and builds them into the site model. Already a significant benefit for sites with hundreds of vents and skylights, we beefed up the power of this tool, allowing it to now quickly detect and model thousands!

Additionally, we enhanced Aurora’s “fill zone” tool, which makes it possible to specify an area of the project site for Aurora to fill with panels according to the designer’s specifications (row spacing, panel tilt and orientation, etc.). Aurora’s fill zones can optimize panel location to maximize the number that fit within the available space–rapidly producing panel configurations even for massive projects.

Scale highlights of Aurora reDesigned:

  • Support for significantly larger, multi-megawatt solar projects
  • Enhanced “fill zone” functionality which automatically optimizes solar panel locations to maximize the number that fit within an available space

Aurora was founded to give solar contractors the tools to easily accurately design solar installations without site visits; but on a larger scale, our goal is to make solar energy more accessible by driving down the cost of delivering a quality system. In the five years since Aurora started, we’ve pioneered accurate remote solar design and developed new tools for solar designers–from 3D measurements with computer vision to solar design automation. But while we’re proud of what we’ve achieved to date, we’re always considering how we can do better.

Rather than continuing to build upon the same CAD tools we built in the beginning, we saw an opportunity to deliver an order of magnitude increase in simplicity, design speed, and the scale of projects Aurora supports by incorporating new approaches in web graphic technology. This new version of Aurora–Aurora reDesigned–not only helps us deliver on our mission to bring solar contractors the best design tools, but also provides a more scalable platform on which to continue our work to bring about a solar-powered future.  

Sign up for a free demo to see Aurora’s state-of-the-art remote solar design  tools

Topics: solar design, technology

A Unique Group Purchasing Program Connecting Nonprofits with Solar

Posted by Gwen Brown on Sep 21, 2018 12:21:35 PM

A persistent challenge solar contractors face is customer acquisition. Solar group purchasing programs present a unique opportunity to compete for a large collection of solar projects. These programs bring together groups of customers that have decided to go solar, and solicit proposals from contractors to install the PV systems for them.

Although these programs seek competitive bids for their participants in exchange for aggregating a large volume of PV capacity, they can be a great way for solar contractors to win sizable deals. Additionally, depending on the particular group purchasing program, it can also provide a rare opportunity to access markets that are typically difficult to reach.

The Community Purchasing Alliance, a member-owned cooperative serving nonprofits in the Washington, D.C. area, is one such program. Their solar program facilitates third-party owned commercial solar projects (PPAs) for nonprofits, such as schools, churches and synagogues, and other community organizations.

We spoke with Joe Naroditsky, Director, Solar & Operations at the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) to learn more about their solar group purchasing program. Our conversation highlights the benefits for solar contractors who engage in the program, and offers insight into some of the barriers nonprofits face to installing solar and how programs like CPA’s overcome them.

We’ve also compiled a list of resources for learning more about these kinds of programs, and highlighted a couple of other organizations doing similar work in other regions. (Note: CPA is also in the early stages of exploring possible expansion of their model to other cities.) In future articles, we’ll delve into other group purchasing program structures, including programs serving residential customers.

Gwen Brown, Aurora Solar: For those not familiar with the work of the Community Purchasing Alliance, what does your organization do?

Joe Naroditsky, Community Purchasing Alliance: An important thing to mention first is that we're a member-owned cooperative. We started as a co-op when 12 churches got together and realized that they were paying more on their electricity bills than on their pastors’ salaries and wanted to do something about that. One of our founders, Felipe Witchger, was working as a volunteer consultant for this group of faith communities and helped them organize.

They bought their electricity together and ended up saving nearly $100,000 that first year. A few months later, about 30 churches joined in, and then 100 churches, and so on. Our other programs are very much like that first initiative, and all of our programs exclusively serve nonprofits. We help folks get better deals on things like trash hauling, janitorial services, and security. We work with a lot of charter schools, and help them with their procurement.

Our solar program is very similar. D.C. is a great market for solar right now and nonprofits are interested in how solar can help them reduce their energy bills. We put a call out to our members to see who's interested. Those that are join a group and together we solicit bids for third-party owned solar projects from different contractors.

Community Purchasing Alliance's solar program helps nonprofits, like churches, install solar through solar group purchases
The Community Purchasing Alliance's solar program helps nonprofits, like churches, install solar. 

Gwen: What are some of the benefits to solar contractors who are selected to install the PV systems for these groups of nonprofits?

Joe: First, in aggregation comes volume. We aggregated over two megawatts of rooftop projects last year, and we've done over four megawatts in the last four years.

Additionally, the commercial-industrial space is the toughest nut to crack in solar and the nonprofit space is the toughest segment to crack within that sector. Probably the biggest benefit to contractors is an “in” to a very difficult space to access that can be very lucrative. Particularly here in the D.C. area, where SREC values are very high, these PPA deals are really good business.

We also help coordinate the ongoing communication with clients–facilitating meetings and check ins, providing project status updates, that sort of thing. So solar contractors that participate in CPA group purchasing programs also get the benefit of our support with these aspects of project management and customer satisfaction.

Related to that, because we organize and educate interested nonprofits, the sales process for participating contractors is a lot shorter than if they were selling to these nonprofits directly. One barrier that nonprofits can face when considering a solar purchase is that they typically have multi-tiered, multi-faceted decision making processes.

If you're selling a commercial solar installation to a company, you may be working with the CEO and have just one or two people that need to give their blessing before they sign off. In contrast, with a church or synagogue, there are a lot of folks involved, and it usually leads to much longer sales cycles than you have in a traditional commercial setting.

Typically solar contractors don't have the time and bandwidth to dedicate what could be 18 to 24 or more months to these small to mid-sized projects and so, a lot of times, they just pass on them. We take on a lot of that work–educating, facilitating the decision-making process, answering questions, going to board meetings, and just taking the time that’s needed. At the end of that process, we have very bought-in and educated clients who are ready to sign a contract.

"At the end of [our RFP] process, we have very bought-in and educated clients who are ready to sign a contract."

Gwen: What’s the typical size of solar deal that solar companies win through the Community Purchasing Alliance’s solar RFP process?

Joe: Our RFPs average about two megawatts in aggregate project size. In terms of individual system size, it varies. The smaller churches and synagogues and other houses of worship are in the 50 kilowatt range, the larger schools are in the 300-400 kilowatt range.  Because we’re aggregating megawatts, we're asking for offers that are better than what a standard, off-the-shelf offer would be–deals our participants would not be able to get on their own.

We make a concerted effort to be very clear that it takes more than just filling out the form to make somebody competitive. In a lot of ways, we see ourselves as a market maker. We’d like contractors understand how important it is to help some of these critical community institutions, which may mean approaching things differently than with a typically commercial client. These organizations run some of the most important work in our community, like after-school programs, homeless shelters, and community clinics–all types of cornerstone community services.

"In a lot of ways, we see ourselves as a market maker."

Gwen: You’ve highlighted some of the benefits of CPA’s programs for contractors. Can you talk a bit more about how your RFP process works?

Joe: Having been in the solar industry for going on 12, 13 years now, I do a lot of the pre-analysis and pre-qualification of certain sites. I get a sense for whether or not interested nonprofits are good candidates for solar, and get a general sense of system size and their roof and building conditions.

From there, our role is to facilitate that competitive bid process–putting together an RFP and putting it out to bid to many different solar contractors in the region. I facilitate site visits and walkthroughs of the different churches and schools, answer questions that contractors may have, and compile all the bids we receive. A lot of work goes into making sure that we put out an RFP that will yield apples-to-apples comparisons on all the proposals that we get.

When we get those proposals back, we evaluate, summarize, and synthesize them, and then share them with the participants. It's very much a group process–a lot of meetings, phone calls with organizations, folks sharing their different questions with each other, what their concerns are.

Really, I think the magic is in that group process. It’s where a lot of the trust gets built, folks know that they're not going into this alone, and they get their peers and different organizations’ perspective and ideas. One person's good idea has often become a great addition to the contract that we then negotiate with the winning solar company.

That's the process. It's not just about the pricing, it's also about the contracts–helping our members with collaborative negotiating of the contracts. We review contracts from the different vendors and our participants tell us what their red flags are in terms of legal terms.

After the RFP process, CPA remains involved as an accountability partner for our organizations. All the way throughout the design, development, installation, and commissioning process, we're there as needed as an advocate and accountability partner–and a guide for those that just need a little more help or assistance or hand holding.

Are you a solar company serving the DC Metro area interested in learning more about how to get involved in CPA's programs? Joe Naroditsky, CPA's Director, Solar & Operations can be reached at joe(at)cpa.coop


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Additional resources:

If you are interested in learning more about solar group purchasing programs, here are some resources for further learning–including information about solar group purchasing for other types of customers (municipalities, residential, etc.) and programs in other regions. Many of these focus on the customer perspective, but contractors can use them as a starting point for exploring opportunities for getting involved.

General information:

Programs for municipal/government customers:

Programs for residential customers:
Programs for commercial customers:

Topics: Solar Sales

5 Ways Solar Design Software Helps Contractors Work Smarter

Posted by Gwen Brown on Sep 5, 2018 10:11:11 AM

As a solar contractor, you’re on the front lines of the incredible transition to cleaner energy–bringing your customers more control over their energy bills and the peace of mind that their energy is sourced responsibly.

But, as you no doubt know, running a solar contracting business isn’t always easy. You have to be able to roll with the punches of things beyond your control, like the imposition of tariffs and uncertainty in solar policies and incentives (for instance, decisions by Connecticut and Michigan to eliminate net metering this year).

But there’s one common solar contracting struggle that you can control–the efficiency of your site assessment and solar design processes. Here at Aurora Solar, we’ve encountered these challenges firsthand. That’s why we’re passionate about finding ways contractors can work smarter and more efficiently, saving time and money on their design and sales processes. In today’s article, we explore some of the ways solar design software makes that possible.

Aurora Solar co-founder Sam Adeyemo installs solar on a school in AfricaAurora co-founder Samuel Adeyemo installing a commercial solar installation on a school in Kenya. In the process of designing the system from across the world, he and co-founder Christopher Hopper realized the barriers to remote solar design without effective software. They founded Aurora to address that need.

1. Follow up with leads faster

When you get an inquiry from a prospective customer, where do you start when it comes to determining if their home is suitable for solar and putting together a quote?

If, like many solar contractors, you set up a time to visit the site, climb on the roof, and take solar access measurements before compiling a proposal, your time-consuming approach could be costing you sales. Cascadia Solar learned this the hard way.

A family business serving Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, Cascadia Solar prided themselves on their exceptional customer service and detail-oriented solar design process. But over time, they started to find that companies with faster turnaround times were beating them to the punch. Sometimes, by the time Cascadia arrived to conduct their site visit, the customer would already have several quotes from companies that used remote site assessment.

When Cascadia Solar learned about Aurora Solar design and sales software and how it could enable them to develop a proposal that was just accurate as their previous process without time-consuming site visits, the choice was easy.

Since switching to Aurora, Cascadia’s solar sales have doubled month over month, and more than doubled year over year! In addition to being able to send a proposal quickly (getting back to the customer while they’re most engaged is key to closing sales), they can now pursue leads that would have been too costly to target before. 

2. Save time and money on site visits

Not only can a more efficient solar design process help you close more sales by responding to inquiries faster, the time and money saved by reducing your site visits and manual measurement processes can be significant.

Aurora Solar allows nonprofit Solar Holler to serve a wider area because they don't have to conduct initial site visits

In a low-margin industry like solar, where every dollar counts, adopting an accurate remote solar design software like Aurora is a powerful way to put more money back in your pocket. NREL has estimated that installers can save ~$850 per  5-kW install with remote site assessment software (savings of $0.17/W).

For Solarponics, a residential installer in California serving San Luis Obispo county, switching to Aurora allowed them to cut initial site visits by 90% while doubling installs.

3. Achieve superior accuracy with state-of-the-art technologies 

Of course, these benefits of software-based remote solar design are only meaningful if the results are as accurate as traditional methods rooted in on-site assessment. That’s the beauty of the technological advances that enable remote solar site assessment and design.

NREL has found that Aurora’s shading engine (which allows us to precisely calculate irradiance on the roof) produces results that are statistically equivalent to onsite measurements. But we haven’t stopped there. Commitment to developing and incorporating the latest technologies is at the core of our company culture.

Eric Moon of Vivint Solar describes how Aurora's LIDAR improves PV designOne key technology we offer customers to help improve design accuracy is LIDAR. If you’re not familiar with it, LIDAR is a lot like SONAR but instead of sound pulses it uses laser beams to create a detailed topographical map. This data is perfect for ensuring that you’ve accurately modeled the height of a tree or the pitch of the roof, which could affect the solar access and energy production of your design.

Additionally, we've partnered with HD imagery provider Nearmap, to make the most up-to-date and crisp imagery accessible to our customers for purchase in small, affordable bundles within the Aurora app. This way, if the Google or Bing satellite imagery for your project site is not recent enough or lacks clarity, HD imagery is just a click away.

We’ve also pioneered the use of computer vision for solar design. This field of computer science teaches computers to interpret visual images. At Aurora, we’ve developed computer vision approaches that allow you to take precise measurements of the project site using a combination of street-level and aerial images.

3-D Measurement GIF-compressedAurora’s computer vision tools give solar designers the ability to take measurements
of a project site using aerial and street-level imagery.

Our computer vision tools also make it possible to automatically detect similar roof obstructions. This can save considerable time, especially on commercial projects where there might be hundreds of repeating skylights or vents that would otherwise have to be drawn out by hand.

4. Build trust with customers 

Being able to demonstrate to your customers that you’re using the latest technologies to develop a personalized solar design for them is also a great way to help build trust and stand out from the crowd of competitors.

Scott O’Hara, Solar Energy Consultant at Baker Home Energy, a San Diego area solar company (twice ranked the #1 solar electrical subcontractor in Solar Power World’s Top 500 Solar Contractors list), can attest to this.

“Aurora’s software has given me a significant advantage in an extremely competitive market. It allows me to show customers why we are proposing a specific panel layout with the help of the sun path simulator.”

Aurora Solar models the sun’s movement, and resulting shadows, at every hour of the year and creates a sunpath animationAurora models the sun’s movement, and resulting shadows, at every hour of the year.
Showing the sunpath animation to your customers can help explain design decisions.

Numerous other companies have found it helpful to show off their Aurora design processes during the sales process–such as Sunworks, which operates a solar design showroom where they create personalized designs in Aurora with the customer.

Another key to building trust with customers is the accuracy of your energy production and bill savings estimates. According to O’Hara, “[Aurora] also increases consumer confidence, because they know we are using the best technology available today to accurately project the performance of the system.”

Unlike other solar software programs on the market, Aurora takes into account the exact stringing configuration of your system as well as the capabilities of the components you’ve selected, such as whether your inverter performs global maximum power point tracking. Aurora also pioneered the approach of simulating PV production at a submodule level, adding another layer of precision.

Aurora even details the causes of reduced system performance in it’s system loss diagrams, allowing you to understand the impact of factors like inverter clipping. These insights can help you arrive at the best design approach for your customer (as we discuss in more detail below).

(For a deeper discussion of some of the key factors for accurate performance simulations, see our article in Solar Power World.)

Loss Tree DiagramAurora’s system loss diagrams indicate how much different factors are impacting energy production.

5. Deliver the best design for the customer’s goals

A final, powerful reason solar design software can improve your design processes is that this streamlined approach makes it considerably easier to compare multiple designs, in order to arrive at the one that best meets the customer’s goals.

We all have a limited amount of time, so without an efficient process for iterating through different designs it may not be feasible to evaluate many options and find the best (as Aurora co-founder Christopher Hopper discusses in his article, “Four Steps to Optimize PV System Performance in Shaded Conditions.”)

One key factor on which to evaluate solar designs is how much they will save the customer on their electricity bills. Aurora has an extensive database of utility rates (and makes it easy to add new rates) so you can assess the bill savings impact of different designs given the customer’s utility rate.

For instance, if the customer is on a time of use rate, a design that produces more energy during hours when electricity is most expensive might save them more than a design that produces more total energy.

Aurora’s AutoDesigner tool takes design iteration to the next level, applying approaches from the field of mathematical optimization to create an automated process that mimics natural selection to arrive at the ideal design given different objectives.

AutoDesigner in action (1)A depiction of how Aurora’s AutoDesigner iterates through potential
designs to arrive at the optimal one for the customer’s goals.


As a solar contractor, you’ve got a lot of demands on your time. Advanced solar software for remote site assessment and solar design can cut the time and cost of site visits, freeing you up to focus on quality installations and satisfying your customers.

 

Interested in learning more about how Aurora's state-of-the-art remote solar design tools can help your company work more efficiently?

SCHEDULE A DEMO

 

Topics: solar design

California’s Solar Mandate for New Homes: What You Need to Know

Posted by Gwen Brown on Aug 29, 2018 10:09:35 AM

[Editor's note: This article was updated on December 6, 2018 to reflect formal approval of the policy by the California Building Standards Commission.]

As you may have heard, California recently became the first state to mandate solar PV systems on all new homes. This is a momentous decision for the industry; it brings the benefits of solar, a historically niche product, directly to a significant portion of homeowners. The policy will dramatically expand the size of California’s solar market–already the most mature in the nation–and perhaps it will eventually inspire similar action in other states.

For California solar companies that position themselves effectively, this could open up some great opportunities to serve a vast new sector. In today’s article, we detail what’s required under the new policy so you can make sense of what’s changing and assess the market opportunities.

Interested in learning more about the resulting market changes, business opportunities, and how your company can get involved?Check out our recent webinar with Solar Power World!

What policy establishes California’s new home solar mandate?  

On May 9, 2018, the California Energy Commission (CEC) approved the 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. What’s significant in this update to the Building Code is that, starting in 2020, every new home built in California will be required to have a PV system installed. (That is unless the building qualifies for an exception, of which there are a few). The policy got official approval from the California Building Standards Commission in December 2018. 

What types of buildings are covered under California’s solar mandate for new homes?

The code states that the solar requirement applies to “all low-rise residential occupancies including single-family homes, duplexes, garden apartments, and other housing types with three or fewer habitable stories.” This includes multi-family housing like apartment buildings as long as they are under three stories. And for single-family homes, it doesn’t matter how tall the building is–all homes of that type must comply.

California’s mandate of solar on new home requires solar PV systems be installed on all new homes, including both single-family and low-rise multi-family homes.California’s mandate of solar on new home requires solar PV systems be installed on all new homes, including both single-family and low-rise multi-family homes.

There are a few exceptions under which a home would not be required to have a PV system (such as including when there is limited unshaded roof space) or would be allowed to install a smaller system. Multistory buildings with limited roof space and homes that incorporate energy storage can qualify for a smaller PV system. Additionally, buildings that are permitted prior to January 1, 2020 will be exempted from the requirement.

What is required to comply?

One of the most important things to understand is the required size of the PV system under California’s solar mandate for new homes. The policy establishes a minimum PV system size for a home based on the building’s projected annual electrical usage. 

Minimum PV system size is calculated based on the conditioned floor space (square feet) and the climate zone where the building is located. (To determine what zone your building is located in, you can use the EZ Building Climate Zone Search App developed by the CEC.) In order for a home to receive a building permit, the builder will need to demonstrate that it will have a solar system of at least that size.

A map of California’s Building Climate Zones, relevant to PV system size under the state's solar mandate for new homesA map of California’s Building Climate Zones; the zone a new home will be built in will influence the size of solar PV system that must be installed under the state’s new mandate of solar on all new homes. To determine what zone your building is located in, the EZ Building Climate Zone Search App is a handy tool. (Image credit: CEC)

Aside from requiring compliance with the minimum system size, the policy allows some freedom for solar contractors and builders to meet the requirements in different ways. For one, developers could choose to install a community solar installation for a group of homes instead of putting rooftop solar on each building. However, they would need to be able to demonstrate that it would offer equivalent benefit to residents as if they had solar on their own home. 

Additionally, a variety of solar financing options are allowed. Systems could be owned by the homeowner (added into the cost of the home) or third-party owned. This means depending on what kinds of solar financing your solar company offers customers, you’ll have flexibility.

How do you determine the required PV system size?

The code includes two different paths for compliance, prescriptive and performance; either can be used to meet California’s solar mandate for new homes. The prescriptive approach utilizes a formula to specify the minimum PV system size (see the appendix at the end of this article for the formula and an explanation). This method is simpler but less flexible.

The performance method (aka “computer compliance method”) is a little more complex but allows for greater flexibility. The CEC has created a free software program (“CBEC-Res”) to allow contractors to model alternative PV sizes, based on different building characteristics like battery storage or demand response. 

Next Steps

Some details of the policy, including more specific guidance for compliance, are still being developed by the CEC. We’ll continue to share relevant updates as they are available. In the meantime, you can check out the resources below to learn more.

Finally, if you want to prepare your company to take advantage of the resulting business opportunities, check out Aurora’s recent webinar hosted by Solar Power World.

Watch the Webinar

Aurora Solar design and sales software enables solar design for homes not yet built because you can design based on roof plansAn example of a solar project site model created from building roof plans in Aurora–one of the ways Aurora makes it easy to adapt your solar design processes for this new solar market. Our webinar (linked above) demonstrates this process.


Additional Resources:


Appendix–Prescriptive Compliance Formula

The following formula establishes the minimum PV system size for a new building under the prescriptive approach in the 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. For a full explanation, see section 7.2 of the 2019 (Draft) Residential Compliance Manual (a final version is still under development at the time of writing so this draft version is the latest guidance).

kW PV required = (CFA x A)/1000 +(NDwell x B)

Here’s what those variables mean:

  • kWPV = kWdc size of the PV system
  • CFA = Conditioned floor area
  • NDwell= Number of dwelling units
  • A = Adjustment factor from Table 7-1 (see below, center column)
  • B = Dwelling adjustment factor from Table 7-1 (see below, right column)

2019 Building Code Table 7-1 for Prescriptive Formula 

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Topics: solar policy, California

Expert Q&A: Why Solar Panel Recycling Matters–and How It Can Benefit the Industry

Posted by Gwen Brown on Aug 1, 2018 11:53:18 AM

The growth of the solar industry has been an incredible renewable energy success story, with an average annual growth rate of 59% over the last decade according to SEIA. By 2023, more than 14 GWdc of PV capacity is forecasted to be installed annually. Given an average panel size of 295 watts, that’s over 64 million panels per year!

While this growth is a tremendous boon for the environment as a means of tackling climate change and reducing air pollutants, there is one potentially negative environmental impact of solar energy that remains largely unaddressed. What will happen to this vast supply of solar panels as they reach the end of their productive life?

Without systems in place for sustainably managing solar panel waste, it could become a significant environmental challenge. Proactively implementing solar panel recycling processes, however, can offer business benefits as well as environmental sustainability.

To better understand the significance of this issue, what’s being done, and how the industry can benefit, Aurora Solar spoke with Dr. Vasilis Fthenakis and Michael Ginsberg, from Columbia University’s Center for Life Cycle Analysis.

Dr. Vasilis Fthenakis, Founder of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis at Columbia University and an expert on solar panel recyclingDr. Vasilis Fthenakis is the Founder and Director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis (CLCA) at Columbia University’s Department of Earth & Environmental Engineering. He is also a Senior Scientist Emeritus at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) where he conducted research for 36 years and directed the National Photovoltaic (PV) Environmental Research Center. His research is a crucial part of the scholarly landscape for comparing renewable energy technologies with conventional energy options and is assisting the large scale penetration of solar into the European and U.S. electricity grids. Some of his current research focuses on identifying cost-effective solar recycling options.

Michael Ginsberg, Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, shares insights on solar panel recyclingMichael Ginsberg is a Ph.D. candidate in Professor Fthenakis’s group at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. He has served as an energy management trainer and policy advisor for the U.S. Department of State on issues of energy diplomacy. Through his firm, Mastering Green, he has advised the New York City Mayor's Office of Sustainability and Long Term Planning and the UN Development Programme on climate change adaptation measures in NYC and West Africa.

Gwen Brown, Aurora Solar: Why is solar panel recycling an increasingly important issue for the solar industry, as well as for society more broadly?

Fthenakis: One key reason is that the volume of photovoltaics is increasing, so having a system in place for the end-of-life management of the panels is becoming more and more important. The necessity of this will become more obvious as big installations, and large volumes of panels reach their end of life. For residential systems, owners will be wanting to do something with the modules that they have on their roofs, and will be asking for avenues for disposing of them. It's becoming a necessity.

Second, there are some toxic elements in solar panels, which make it important that they be managed responsibly. And third, solar panels contain relatively rare elements of high value. When they are recycled, it enhances the sustainable growth of photovoltaics by creating a secondary stream of valuable materials. In this way, recycling can help relieve pressure on panel prices.

Utility-scale Solar PlantThe huge volume of solar panels being installed in recent years will make it especially important to have recycling programs in place for sustainably managing these panels when they reach their end of life. 

Brown: What are some of the advantages for solar manufacturers that integrate recycling practices into their business operations?

Fthenakis: One is the marketing advantage. Customers and stakeholders want the whole lifecycle of photovoltaics to be beneficial for the environment. When solar panels operate they are obviously beneficial to the environment, especially if they displace other dirty power generation systems. But end-of-life management of panels is the only negative environmental impact of photovoltaics that is not really resolved in the United States. So tackling this issue is very important from a marketing and public relations standpoint.

Second, regulations are expected. Although we don't know when, we expect regulations in the U.S. on the management of solar waste at some point, as we have seen in Europe. If the industry is proactive, it can get ahead of the regulations. Industry stakeholders will be able to plan a recycling scheme the way they think it will work best, not in the way regulators might enforce it.

A third benefit for manufacturers, is that they can capture the value of the relatively rare elements that can go back into the manufacturing of photovoltaics–for example, silver in crystalline silicon panels; in thin films, tellurium, indium, gallium, germanium. These types of rare elements will need to be sustained through the century for the production of photovoltaics.

Brown: Given the limited supplies of some of these rare earth metals that are needed for different types of panels, will recycling be important in the long-term to protecting the supply chains of different types of solar panels?

Fthenakis: Towards the middle of the century, with expected growth, recycling will start becoming very important to solar panel supply chains. Projections show that, from mid-century on, the secondary stream could become as big as the primary one. There are two reasons for this; one is the large volume of solar installations that will be reaching their end of life at that point. Second, the primary production of many of important elements for solar panel production, such as zinc and copper, will peak by that point.

To sustain the transition from fossil fuels into renewable energy, with solar as major constituent, the solar industry will need to keep growing through the end of the century. Without recovery of those materials, it may not be able to. Recycling will become a necessity–not immediately, but from 2035 on.

Resource availability is one reason solar panel recycling will be important to the success of the solar industry. This chart shows projected availability of Tellurium, a key element of thin film solar panels.

Tellurium, used in thin film solar panels, is an example of an element whose supply will peak in the coming decades. This chart shows projections of tellurium availability for photovoltaics from copper smelters (dashed lines; peaking in ∼ 2055) and total from copper smelters and recycling of end-of-life photovoltaic modules (solid lines; continuing upward trend until 2095). The red and blue curves in each pair correspond to high and low projections, respectively. Note: A tellurium demand of 322 t/yr for non-photovoltaic uses was subtracted. Source: Fthenakis, V. (2012). Sustainability metrics for extending thin-film photovoltaics to terawatt levels. MRS Bulletin, 37(4), 425-430. doi:10.1557/mrs.2012.50

Brown: What are some of the barriers to solar panel recycling at this time? Are they primarily technical barriers, or more related to the process of integrating recycling into business operations?

Fthenakis: For the established technologies, mono- and multi-crystalline silicon and cadmium telluride, there are not technical barriers. There are tested, established technologies that show the separation of panel components can be done effectively and the materials can be taken out and be reused in different ways. For new technologies, like organics and perovskites–some PV technologies that use more exotic materials, recycling technologies have  not be established yet. Overall, the issue is not technical. The feasibility of separations is proven.

Cost remains is an issue, however. Because photovoltaics compete on price with inexpensive conventional energy, cost is very, very important. It's not like the recycling of expensive electronics where an additional costs can be absorbed in the price. Additionally, manufacturers are under pressure to keep the costs down because of the big influx of inexpensive photovoltaics from China, which has suppressed profit margins a lot. As a result,  although many in the industry realize that this is a necessity, we haven't had an industry-wide program yet in the United States.

However, solar recycling doesn't have to be costly; it can add value, as long as there are sufficient volumes and the activities–from commissioning and transport to recovery–are well planned.

Ginsberg: The primary question we're asking now is: "how do we maximize revenue and minimize cost?" Maximizing revenue is achieved by capturing the high-value elements–such as tellurium in cadmium-telluride modules. As Dr. Fthenakis said, the feasibility of separations has been proven. In his work at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cd, Te extraction and separation was completed at a project cost of 1 cent/Wp.

Now in minimizing cost, we have to minimize the cost of collecting. At Columbia’s Center for Lifecycle Analysis, we look at the cost of materials collection through life-cycle assessments. One of the things we focus on is reverse logistics, including looking at the infrastructure for collecting modules. Currently, manufacturers are able to distribute but not necessarily collect. A lot of the work that we do at the Center is looking at determining certain break even points to make solar recycling profitable.

Stack_of_Solar_PanelsMinimizing the cost of collecting modules for recycling is one area where more work is needed to solar panel recycling accessible and cost-effective. 

Brown: You mentioned that there has been industry-wide action on solar panel recycling in Europe. How does the current landscape of solar recycling in the U.S. compare to other markets like the E.U.? What has been done commercially to implement solar recycling here in the U.S.?

Fthenakis: In Europe, solar panel recycling has become mandatory since 2012 due to the Waste Electrical Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations which mandate recycling of photovoltaics at the end of their life. The industry in the E.U. was proactive and being “a good citizen,” and to some degree in anticipation of regulations, in 2007 started an industry-wide non-profit program called PV Cycle. This program currently assists the industry in complying with the WEEE regulations. It operates warehouses for collection and designated recycling plants. This is unique to Europe.

In the U.S. (as well as in Asia and other continents), we don't have that. The industry is using contractors–for the most part metal recovery contractors. Some of the big manufacturers, like First Solar have their own recycling programs. First Solar is managing recycling in-house; they have developed the technology, in-part based on patents developed with my work at Brookhaven National Lab. Others are using contractors to which they send the decommissioned modules.

Ginsberg: In the U.S., the primary regulation that pertains to management of solar panel waste is the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). State policies are diverse, so there are no universal standards at the state-level. Under the RCRA, PV modules may be found to be either a hazardous waste or “universal” waste, and are then subject to different handling requirements.

Fthenakis: There is a test to determine if a spent module is hazardous waste or not. It's called the Toxicity Characteristics Leach Procedure (TCLP), that applies to the federal level. Most photovoltaics in current production pass this test, which looks for materials like the cadmium and several others. But California has more strict testing.

Additionally, a bill passed recently in California, SB-489, designates photovoltaics as universal waste. This means end-of life modules will need to a specialized handler, such as a household hazardous waste facility, “Take-It-Back Partner”, or collection event, a universal waste transporter, or a universal waste destination facility.

Brown: Are there any other final thoughts on solar panel recycling that you would like to share with our readers?

Fthenakis: I encourage solar installers to communicate to their suppliers that a recycling program is needed; customers will increasingly be asking for it.

Ginsberg: The work on separation of elements has been done. Beyond the fact that the increasing demand of rare elements will necessitate their reuse, we need collection infrastructure paradigms that ensure profitability for manufacturers, whereby the revenue from output materials is greater than the module receiving, processing and inventory costs. It will be important to put pressure on the module suppliers to set up these photovoltaic take-back centers and demonstrate that they are proactive about recycling.

Fthenakis: And, when solar customers ask about what will happen to their system at the end of its life–because people who invest in photovoltaics tend to be environmentally conscious–it would be valuable to have planted the seeds of a recycling program to address these concerns.

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Topics: Solar Spotlight, solar industry, Solar Recycling

Instructive Insights from Intersolar 2018

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jul 18, 2018 11:21:28 PM

Last week found the Aurora team busy manning our booth at Intersolar North America–our “hometown” solar conference and trade show just a short walk from our office in San Francisco. In between the fun we had talking to fellow solar enthusiasts at our booth, we found some time to explore the conference and Expo floor.

IMG_3320Aurora sales consultant JT McCook shares a sneak peek of some new Aurora technology.

While there were tons of great new solar products on display, we especially loved the opportunities to learn. Here are a few educational highlights we found interesting from Intersolar 2018:

1. Resources from The Solar Foundation for finding great solar employees

Something we’ve seen repeatedly in The Solar Foundation’s annual Solar Census is that, as the solar industry continues to grow (industry jobs have nearly tripled since 2010), employers are finding it increasingly difficult to fill job openings with qualified solar professionals.

84 have trouble hiringThe Solar Foundation has found hiring to be a common challenge for solar installation companies. Source: Presentation by Chris Walker at the Innovations and Applications stage at Intersolar North America 2018.

If your company is one of the 84% of solar installation companies that report difficulty hiring, the latest The Solar Foundation’s latest initiative is for you! The Foundation released at Intersolar a new resource: Strategies for Solar Workforce Development: A Toolkit for the Solar Industry.

Chris_Walker_presChris Walker, Senior Program Manager for the Solar Training Network, presents The Solar Foundation’s latest report for solar companies.

Chris Walker, Senior Program Manager for the Solar Training Network at The Solar Foundation, presented on the toolkit at the Innovations and Applications stage. The toolkit focuses on providing solar companies actionable steps for engaging with the public workforce system to develop work-based learning opportunities to help create a pipeline of qualified employees.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 10.13.36 PMA diagram of the benefits of collaboration between the workforce development system and businesses, as articulated in Strategies for Solar Workforce Development. Source: The Solar Foundation.

Among the toolkit recommendations are that employers collaborate with the Workforce Development System (comprised of local workforce development boards, job centers, and education and training providers) to communicate the skills they need. It explore some of the different forms of workforce training programs and how employers can choose those that best fit their needs. Importantly, it also highlights the availability of federal funding for workforce training  programs through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Interested in learning how these strategies can help your company more easily hire qualified employees? Check out the full report here!

2. Expert perspectives on the Future of Solar 

One session of the conference we particularly enjoyed was the Future of PV panel. Expert panelists offered insights on what the future of solar energy will be in the US and global markets, as well as thoughts on what developments will be involved to get us to that point, based on their diverse roles in the industry.

Jesse Grossman, CEO of Soltage–a solar developer that owns a fleet of solar assets around the country, shared some of the trends his company is observing as it keeps tabs on the U.S. market. One of the main things he underscored was the role of community solar as the fastest growing segment of the market. This makes a lot of sense to us since community solar makes solar accessible to the large share of potential customers who, for a variety or reasons, can’t access solar directly.

Angelina Galiteva, Founder of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute and a board member of California Independent Systems Operator Board (CAISO), shared a California and international perspective on the future of solar. She honed in on some of the challenges grid operators are grappling as they work to incorporate increasing amounts of renewable energy and resulting variability in the timing of energy production.

While these are big challenges, Galiteva painted an optimistic picture. She noted that high levels of renewables will be the new normal, and reiterated trend of steep declines in the cost of solar and other renewable energies.

She underscored that collaboration will be key to a smooth transition toward a future where a majority of our energy is renewable–including collaboration between different regional grid managers, regional grid interconnection to allow for the sharing of excess renewable generation, and the sharing of information and lessons learned. She also highlighted the diverse suite of solutions that will be needed, including energy storage, demand response, TOU rates, diverse renewable energy sources, and electric vehicles.

3. Remembering the solar pioneers who helped get us where we are today

It was exciting to hear a variety of perspectives on a clean energy-powered future–but we were also intrigued by the opportunity to learn about some of the early solar adopters and enthusiasts who first helped launch the solar industry decades ago.

A new independent documentary, “Solar Roots - The Pioneers of PV," had one of its first screenings at Intersolar–a 20 minute teaser followed by a Q&A session. The film, Jeff Spies and Jason Vetterli, is based on interviews of 50 pioneers of the solar photovoltaic industry. Speaking to Inovateus Solar, Spies explains “I’m telling peoples’ life stories, their legacy for future generations is in my hands, and I now fully appreciate the weight of that responsibility. I’m committed on a personal level, above all else, to telling the story the way that will make the people in the movie proud.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 10.46.16 PMSolar Roots, a documentary by Jeff Spies and Jason Vetterli explores the role of early solar enthusiasts in demonstrating the viability of solar energy and helping to launch the PV industry.

These stories of people whose commitment to solar helped the industry first take root are not often heard, so we encourage you to check out the documentary if you get the chance. It will be screened at future gatherings of solar professionals, including at Solar Power International in Anaheim, CA on September 26.

It’s always a treat to attend solar conferences where we can learn from others in the industry and connect with the community. If you couldn’t make it to Intersolar this month, we hope to see you later this year at Solar Power International in Anaheim, California September 24-27!


P.S. What did you like best at Intersolar? Let us know in the comments below!

Topics: solar industry

Energy Independence for Independence Hall

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jul 4, 2018 2:01:30 PM

If you’re a regular reader of the Aurora Blog, you know we love to flex our solar design skills through periodic “Solar Landmarks”—where we design solar installations for notable landmarks around the world. Today on Independence Day, we could think of no better landmark to model than Independence Hall, the birthplace of American democracy.

Both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were crafted and signed in these hallowed halls, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Andrew Hamilton oversaw construction of the building, which began in 1732, and George Washington was appointed Commander in Chief of the Continental Army here in 1755.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - the site of our hypothetical solar installation designed in Aurora Solar.Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. To the right of Independence Hall is Congress Hall, which housed the US Congress from 1790 to 1800, and to the left is Old City Hall, which housed the United States Supreme Court in the 1790s. Credit: NPS photo.

While we suspect that the National Parks Service might have some reservations about adding solar panels to such a historic roof, in today’s article we engaged in a fun thought experiment to see how solar could deliver energy savings and environmental value to this national treasure.

Evaluating the Project Site

The building is comprised of three main partsa central hall, which sports a tall tower and steeple (these were added in 1750, and were not part of the original building), and two wings on the east and west sides. The wings are connected to the main portion of the building by covered walkways.

The east and west wings have hipped roofs, while the roof of the central section has folds and is relatively flat in the center. This center section section of the roof has a few obstructions we need to be mindful of when considering a rooftop solar installation: low fences section off this part of the roof, which is also bounded on either end by decorative brick walls.

A view of Independence Hall (site of our Aurora Solar design) in which you can see obstructions on the roof of the center building. In this view of Independence Hall, the obstructions on the roof of the central building (decorative fences and brick walls) are clearly visible. Credit: NPS photo.

Immediately to the right and left of Independence Hall are two other notable buildings from the colonial era, Congress Hall, which housed the U.S. Congress from 1790 to 1800, and Old City Hall which housed the United States Supreme Court in the 1790s. These two structures are also part of Independence National Historical Park operated by the National Parks Service, through an agreement with the City.

Consumption Data

In order to determine how large of a solar installation was appropriate for this site, and how much solar could reduce the building’s utility bills, we first needed to determine how much energy the building uses.

While we lacked the utility bill data we might have if this were a real solar client, thankfully, Philadelphia publishes energy consumption data for city-owned buildings—including Independence Hall!

We found that in 2016 Independence Hall used 839,230.2 kBTUs of electricity. Knowing that 1 BTU, or British Thermal Unit = 0.00029307107017 kWh and there are 1000 BTUs in one kBTU, we were able to determine that the building’s annual consumption is 245,954.1 kWh.

We didn’t have a monthly breakdown of how that consumption was distributed throughout the year. However, because Aurora’s consumption portal can extrapolate energy use throughout the year based on even a single monthly data point, we worked backward entering a couple of monthly consumption values until we arrived at the appropriate annual consumption.

monthly energy consumption estimated by Aurora Solar for Independence HallEstimated electricity consumption of Independence Hall by month based on it’s known annual electricity usage. Aurora’s consumption portal is able to extrapolate usage for other months given one or more monthly usage (or bill) values. 

[For more information on how Aurora intelligently extrapolates energy consumption based on patterns for different areas and building types, check out our related residential and commercial load profile articles.]

Constructing a Site Model

To ensure precision in determining how many solar panels this roof could fit, and how energy production would be impacted by shading from trees and other obstructions at the site, we started by creating a detailed 3D model. For good measure, we also modeled Congress Hall and Old City Hall in case they shaded the structure. Aurora’s SmartRoof design functionality made this easier since we could just outline the edges of the roof and Aurora would automatically infer the roof structure.

 2D view of a site model of Independence Hall, the starting point for our Aurora Solar PV designA 2D view of our site model of Independence Hall, designed in Aurora. 

With a few manual adjustments and the addition of roof obstructions, we had a detailed 3D model from which to create an accurate solar design. Obstructions included two tall chimneys on the east and west wings of Independence Hall, the previously mentioned fences on the roof of the main building, and spires on the roofs of Congress Hall and Old City Hall. The area is also filled with many trees and a neighboring skyscraper that could cast shade on the roof, so we carefully modeled these structures as well.

A 3D view of our site model of Independence Hall, designed in Aurora Solar.A 3D view of our site model of Independence Hall, designed in Aurora.

At first glance, it seems that there is plenty of roof space to support a moderately large commercial solar installation. However, we also needed to evaluate the solar potential of this roof because we would not want to place panels in heavily shaded areas.

Assessing Solar Potential

Using Aurora’s remote shading engine we generated an irradiance map of the roof of Independence Hall. Brighter areas represent areas of higher irradiance. Unfortunately, the solar potential of Independence Hall, located in an area with many trees, leaves a lot to be desired. The south-facing roofs, though having higher solar access as expected, have either obstructions (chimneys on the east and west wings) or, in the case of the main building, receive shade from the steeple.

An irradiance map of Independence Hall, showing how much solar energy is available at different points on the roof.An irradiance map of Independence Hall, showing how much solar energy is available at different points on the roof. 

The roofs of Congress Hall and Old City Hall were more promising, with over 90% solar access on some portions of the south-facing roofs (see dialog box above). We initially entertained the idea of placing some panels in these areas, although the roof faces are small and feature dormers.

Using Aurora’s “fill roof face” tool, which allowed us to specify a minimum Solar Access Percentage (SAP) for placement of panels, we explored whether a rooftop system could be a viable option. However, requiring that panels be placed only in areas with a SAP of at least 80% resulted in a smattering of panels that was not aesthetically pleasing:

An initial solar design for Independence Hall; Aurora only placed panels where the Solar Access Percentage was greater than 80%.In our first design we attempted to place panels in areas of the roof with a Solar Access Percentage greater than 80%. However, the limited roof area meeting that criteria made this design strategy undesirable.

With a rooftop solar system effectively ruled out, we turned out sights to a possible ground mount for Independence Hall. We think that option would also be more appealing to the National Parks Service, tasked with maintaining the site’s historical integrity! Plus, on hot summer days, these elevated ground mounts could provide much-appreciated shade for visitors.

Across Chestnut Street is a sidewalk area and a large grassy expanse, both also part of Independence National Historic Park. With little tree cover in this area to obstruct solar access, we thought this was a great place for a solar ground mount.

A 2D view of a groundmount solar design for Independence Hall, created in Aurora Solar2D view of our proposed ground mount solar installation for Independence Hall.

A 3D view of a groundmount solar design for Independence Hall, created in Aurora Solar3D view of our proposed ground mount solar installation for Independence Hall. 

We designed a system comprised of 5 arrays of 64 panels (8 rows of 8) with a tilt of 15 degrees.1 The result is a 109 kW system. We then used Aurora’s performance simulation engine to calculate how much energy this system would produce for Independence Hall. Aurora calculates that the system would produce 127,406 kWh per year, offsetting 52% of the building’s annual energy use. Not too shabby!

Aurora Solar's estimated energy production (performance simulation) for a 109 kW solar installation for Independence HallEstimated energy production of the ground mount solar installation we designed for Independence Hall. 

Aurora Solar's system loss diagram, showing factors that limit energy production from our solar design for Independence HallAurora’s system loss diagrams show how different factors reduce the energy production of your solar design. This can be helpful in allowing you to improve the performance of your design. 

Independence Hall was the site of many of the great advances in modern democracy. With a solar installation like this, it could also help lead the way toward energy independence and a future of clean energy!

final 3D design viewOur final solar design for Independence Hall!

Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to the Aurora Blog for our latest updates!

P.S. Have another famous landmark you’d like to see solar on? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll see what we can do!


Notes:

1. We initially designed the system with a tilt of 9 degrees but using Aurora’s system loss diagram we determined that we were losing a lot of production due to the Tilt and Orientation Factor so we adjusted the solar design accordingly. This ability to see how different design factors impact performance and quickly make adjustments was very helpful, allowing us to generate an additional 22,147 kWh annually!

Acknowledgments: 

Special thanks to Aurora Research Engineer Andrew Gong for creating the site model of this complex building!

Topics: Solar Landmarks

SEIA President & CEO Abby Hopper on Solar Policy Priorities and More

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jun 27, 2018 4:56:15 PM

From Washington, D.C. to state capitals around the country, if there’s a policy change that affects clean energy in the U.S., chances are the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is there advocating for the advancement of solar.

As the national trade association for the U.S. solar industry, SEIA represents organizations across all sectors from manufacturing to installation. SEIA works to champion the use of cost-competitive solar, grow solar jobs and diversity, remove market barriers, and educate the public about the benefits of solar energy.

Leading SEIA is President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper, who joined the organization in January 2017. Prior to SEIA, Hopper had an impressive public service career focused on energy, including serving as the Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. She also held the roles of Director of the Maryland Energy Administration, Energy Advisor to Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, and Deputy General Counsel of the Maryland Public Service Commission.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Abby Hopper to learn more about SEIA’s advocacy priorities, changes in solar markets around the country, opportunities for increasing diversity in the solar workforce and customer base, and more. We’re excited to share that conversation with you today.

SEIA President and CEO Abby HopperSEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper. Photo Credit: SEIA.

Prior to joining SEIA as President and CEO a little over a year and a half ago, you held several prominent positions in government. How have your previous positions prepared you for your role at SEIA?

One thing I’ve learned is that you can always learn the substance. I was not a solar expert when I got this job; I wasn't an oil and gas expert when I got my previous job. I always learned the substance. What matters, I think, is your ability to think strategically, to execute, and to form relationships and partnerships to make that all happen.

I’ve also I learned in my career that thinking about the "why" of what we're doing is so important. Making sure that you're approaching the “why” and the “how” thoughtfully and intentionally—and not just doing things “because”—that's important.

Another thing I've learned in my career is that relationships are the most important currency you can have. I could have all the knowledge in the world, but if I don't have the relationships to make things happen, it doesn't matter. Forming, building, and maintaining relationships is incredibly important.

What are a couple of SEIA’s top policy priorities at the federal and state level?

We have a couple of top priorities at both the federal and the state level. Strategically, those priorities center around defending markets that are already open to solar and ensuring market access. Those are big theories, but that's what drives our work.

At the federal level, we're really focused on making sure that—at whatever the venue, FERC, DOE, etc.—solar has an opportunity to compete. Any policies that might come out of this administration that tend to favor existing resources, coal and nuclear in particular, SEIA is going to be opposed to. We are keeping a really careful eye on that. More proactively, we are really lobbying hard for the Investment Tax Credit to be applied to stand-alone storage projects. We think that can be incredibly helpful to the storage industry, and also as it relates to solar.

At an intermediate level, if you will, we are thinking about Regional Transmission Operators (RTOs) and the kinds of market rules that are created there. We are engaged, and engaging more and more, to make sure that those rules and marketplaces are fair and open to solar energy.

At the state level, every year, we choose about twelve priority states. Those are places where we focus our time, money, and energy. There are a range of priorities at that level, but all are about market access—Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs), ensuring fair compensation for net metered customers, tax abatement, land policy, etc. The overriding theory is making sure that solar can compete.

Building upon that, given that there are so many different solar policy developments around the country, how do you pick the top priority states to focus on?

We are a membership organization, our members tell us what's important to them and that's where we focus. These priority states have historically been a combination of existing strong solar states (places like California or New York, markets we want to make sure stay open and healthy and grow) and emerging markets (Illinois, for example, New Jersey, which was a big market, then wasn’t, and now is again). Those are on the list because they are places where there is a lot of opportunity.

It’s a process we go through every year. Every fall, we get together with our members and ask “what matters to you?” And then we prioritize and focus on those areas. Similarly, I didn't come up with SEIA’s policy priorities; it's not “what Abby Hopper thinks,” it’s what our members tell us is most important to them.

Since you have such a high level view of what's going on around the country, what are some state markets that might not necessarily be in the news a lot, but where solar has made significant strides or where solar policies are being advanced that we might want to keep tabs on?

As we look at the country, the Midwest is a fast emerging market—Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, are all states that are, to one degree or another, grappling with solar and putting policies in place to help advance solar. (With the exception of Michigan, which just had a bad decision out of the Public Service Commission).

The Southeast is another emerging area. In the regulated markets down there, those Public Service Commissions have really been leading the way on requiring solar for their utilities. Once that initial step was taken, it’s obviously taken off. That's been exciting to watch.

I would say those are the two regions, with specific focus on the states that I mentioned and places like Georgia and South Carolina.

My next two questions touch upon one of the priorities that you highlighted when you took the helm of SEIA: ensuring inclusivity in solar both in terms of customers and the solar workforce.

First, what are some examples of successful strategies you've observed for making solar more accessible to groups that have traditionally had a difficult time accessing it (low income communities, renters, apartment residents, etc.)?

One is that, as we think about state policies or state programs to incentivize solar, there needs to be a low income element to it. For instance, if it's a grant program or some kind of rebate program, there should be funds dedicated to low income members of the community.

Community solar, I don’t have to tell you guys, is incredibly impactful and allows so many people to have access to solar who wouldn't otherwise be able to benefit from it. Community solar has really taken off in the past year and it shows in the 2017 market growth numbers. It's very accessible to people; it’s a business model that intuitively makes sense—people can understand that you're basically buying a share in a solar farm. So I think community solar will continue to grow.

Lastly, prices coming down has helped make solar even more accessible. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s making a big difference. At our board meeting recently, we had a speaker from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, which recently published a report about the income levels of home solar adopters. In four states, the average income of solar adopters is on parity with average income in the state; it's right where it should be.

Although there are more women in the workforce than even a few years ago, we still see, according to The Solar Foundation’s Solar Jobs Census, that women represent less than a third of solar industry employees. What do you see as some of the key steps the industry can take to achieve greater representation of women in the solar workforce?

That’s a great question. It’s something I think about every day!

It's not as simple as just getting more women into the solar workforce, right? There are lots of things we can do to achieve that. But it's more than that, it's about recruiting women, retaining them, and promoting them. The job is not done on day one.

After that, it becomes about: How do we make sure that women are staying? How do we create work workplaces where they feel included, feel valued, feel heard? And, how do we create opportunities to promote them, so that those of us in leadership are not all by ourselves? There needs to be an intention to do it. It's not going to happen organically; I think you have to devote time, energy, and resources to making it happen.

Where and how are you recruiting new employees? What kind of education are you providing? Once they're in the door, it’s about understanding what your workforce needs—there may or may not be different needs and different opportunities. Are there examples of women in leadership? And if there aren’t examples of [female] leadership in your organization, where can women in your organization find other examples of leadership? Where can they get mentoring? It doesn't have to be just women mentoring other women, but there have to be opportunities for professional growth in a way that's meaningful.

Finally, you’ve gotta promote them! There are fully capable [women]. But if you don't look at your board, or your executive team, or your sales team, or your engineers with an eye towards diversity, you're not going to see it.

I look at all of those things—“How diverse is my my executive team? How diverse is my board?” We don't get all A+s; SEIA has work to do, but we are doing it. We're being thoughtful and intentional about it, and trying to create a kind of place where women come, stay, and get promoted.

And, I answered your question in terms of women, but these same things apply to people of color and other underrepresented groups of our community. And one of the things, in terms of getting people in the door, is expanding the network that you're trying to recruit from.

People share job notices with people they know, and people usually know people that are very similar to them. So this means we need to be thinking about things like: Are we going to historically black universities and colleges? Are we in partnership with NAACP and can use some of their networks? Are we coordinating with the Latino Chamber of Commerce, and can we use that network? We need to think more broadly than we sometimes normally do to make sure that we get [diverse] candidates in the door.

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Topics: Solar Spotlight, solar policy

Three Solar Industry Contests Driving Innovation

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jun 20, 2018 11:23:51 AM

One of the things we love about working in the solar industry is that our community is constantly pushing forward with practical innovations that help make the energy system cleaner and more sustainable. Innovation has been a cornerstone of the solar industry’s successes to date. Take, for example, the gradual improvements in product and process that have contributed to the cost of solar falling more than 70% since 2010.

We take the need for innovation seriously here at Aurora—from pioneering accurate remote shading analysis and solar design to rethinking the process of creating a 3D site model—so we’re excited to see a number of competition programs encouraging the development and implementation of new clean energy ideas.

Whether you’re a solar installer (residential, C&I, or utility-scale), manufacturer, aspiring entrepreneur or inventor, there’s something for everyone in these three contests.

1. Solar Builder’s Project of the Year

Solar Builder magazine’s Project of the Year contest, which honors noteworthy solar projects large and small, is a great way to share unique and innovative projects your company has developed.

With four project categories—Residential, Commercial & Industrial, Utility-scale, and Solar + Storage—eligible projects can take a wide range of forms. They just need to have been completed between October 1, 2017 and July 31, 2018 and demonstrate some form of significance. This could range from technological innovation, impressive design, valuable community impacts, or other notable characteristics.

Winners will be selected by popular vote so this is a prime opportunity to drive support through your network of happy customers and your social media channels! There will also be an Editor’s Choice award. Submissions are due by August 31, and can be completed hereWinning projects will be profiled in Solar Builder magazine’s end-of-year issue and on its website.

Solar Builder magazine's Project of the Year is a great opportunity to showcase cool projects your company has developed!Photo credit: Solar Builder.

2. The U.S. Department of Energy’s American-Made Solar Prize competition

Things have been tumultuous recently for our friends in the solar manufacturing sector, whose products, from modules to inverters, make possible the great successes our industry has achieved. So it’s great to see a new competition from the Department of Energy (DOE) offering support to U.S. manufacturers to innovate new products.

The contest is structured in three progressive prize rounds (the “Ready! Set! Go!” contests) that seek to encourage the development of new U.S.-made solar products. $3 million in funding from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy will be disbursed through the competition in the following contests:

  • “Ready!”—selects 20-40 winners who have identified an impactful idea or solution addressing a critical need in the solar industry to receive a $50,000 prize.
  • “Set!”—selects 5-10 winners, who substantially advance their technology solution toward a viable and promising proof of concept, to receive up to $200,000 prize and up to $75,000 in vouchers that can be used at national laboratories and other facilities to develop, test, and validate.
  • “Go!”—selects up to two winners who produce a prototype and find a testing partner. Winners receive a $500,000 prize and up to $75,000 in vouchers.

Submissions are due October 5.

3. Open Innovability contests from Enel in partnership with Innocentive

Multinational energy corporation Enel is releasing 50 challenges related to energy, in partnership with crowd-sourcing company Innocentive. Anyone with “any idea, project, business solution or patent” that helps solve one of the challenges is encouraged to submit it for consideration. Competitors who submit winning concepts will have the opportunity to work with Enel to develop and implement the ideas (in addition to receiving cash prizes in some cases).

The contests span a wide range of energy-related topics, but we’ve combed through them to highlight a few we think are particularly relevant to solar professionals:

  • Technologies for renewable generation—ideas for improving of existing renewable energy technologies, better integration of renewable power in human environments, and the use of new renewable resources.
  • Clear the way for clean energy—ideas for advancing universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services, with a specific focus on energy efficiency and renewable production.
  • Energy for those in need—ideas for meeting the basic energy needs of those in energy poverty, including new technologies, revival of ancient low-cost techniques and knowledge, as well as services that increase the energy resilience of communities.
  • Energy Storage Systems: technologies to minimize costs & maximize profitability—new technologies, architectures, and control strategies to lower energy storage costs and to improve the way they are are built, operated and maintained to maximize profitability.
  • Turning the tide on climate change—new (practical or theoretical) ideas for tackling the adverse effects of climate change.

While the deadlines vary for each challenge, those highlighted above have deadlines either on December 31, 2018 or are continuously open. 

There you have it—three programs that offer publicity, financial support, and/or technical support for creative new clean energy ideas. Get brainstorming!

P.S. Are there other opportunities you think your solar friends and colleagues should know about? We hope you’ll share them in the comments below! :)

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Topics: technology, solar industry

How a Shift in Chinese Solar Policy Is Shaking Up the Industry

Posted by Gwen Brown on Jun 13, 2018 9:42:35 PM

It can be easy to see the solar industry through the lens of your local market. But we periodically get powerful reminders of the fact that global market forces have huge sway over our industry.

One of the biggest recent reminders was the U.S. government decision to impose tariffs on foreign-made solar panels in an effort to protect domestic manufacturers from an influx of cheap Chinese solar panels. Now, major policy changes in China are making waves in solar markets around the world—including here in the U.S., where they may counteract the impacts of the tariffs.

Today, we explain solar policy changes the Chinese government announced in June 2018, why they are significant to U.S. and global markets, and how they are expected to impact different industry sectors.

How Are China’s Solar Policies Changing?

On June 1, the Chinese government announced policies that effectively halt the development of new utility-scale and distributed solar projects around the country and scale back incentives for solar. These policy changes could reduce the solar capacity installed in China this year by as much as 40% (20 gigawatts) according to GTM Research.

Specifically, the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Finance, and National Energy Administration jointly issued a statement outlining the following policy changes:

  • No new utility-scale solar plants will be approved in 2018. The previous target of 13.9 GW of utility-scale solar (compared to 34 GW installed last year) has been abolished.
  • Distributed solar projects are capped at 10GW for 2018 (compared to 19GW last year); analysts say this cap has already been reached for the year, so this is effectively a halt to distributed solar (e.g., rooftop) development as well.
  • Feed-in tariffs for solar generation are now reduced by 0.05 yuan per kilowatt hour (a 6.7 - 9% reduction depending on the region).

These changes are the most significant scale-backs of government support for solar in China to date. They are intended to reduce a deficit of $15.6 billion in the country’s state-run renewable energy fund.

What Do These Changes Mean?

China leads the world in solar installations, accounting for approximately 54% of global PV installations in 2017. GTM Research reports that this reduction in demand from China could lead to the first contraction in global PV demand since 2000.

Additionally, this sudden evaporation of China’s massive pipeline of projects is expected to lead to a significant oversupply of modules in the global market. Roth Capital estimates an oversupply of 34 GW!

This oversupply will theoretically lead to a significant drop in solar module costs. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) has predicted that module costs will fall 34%. These cost reductions are comparable to what was seen in 2016, when the U.S. solar market experienced its greatest growth on record. BNEF estimates that module costs will fall to $0.24/watt by the end of the yearcompared to $0.37/watt at the end of 2017.

solar panel manufacturing

Installers and Developers See Relief, Manufacturers Feel the Burn

The expected reductions in module cost are welcome news for solar installers and project developers. The U.S. government’s decision in January to impose 30% tariffs on imported crystalline silicon solar panels has caused pain for these sectors, where higher costs changed the economics of projects and led to cancellations, particularly in the utility-scale sector.

Although the full impact of these unexpected Chinese policy changes is still uncertain, if module costs fall as much as anticipated then the price impacts of U.S. tariffs may be at least partially counteracted. In the short-term, BNEF predicts uncertainty and the suspension of some installations as developers wait to for updated prices. Longer-term, however the outlook for solar growth is optimistic.

In an Op-Ed for PV Magazine, Tony Clifford of Standard Solar predicts that “the solar industry in the United States could quickly return to its full strength,” observing that even under conservative estimates prices will be “much lower than where they are today and even where they were two years ago, during solar’s greatest growth year ever.”

On the flip side, these developments will put greater pressure on manufacturers as they exacerbate the competition against cheap imported modules that tariff proponents originally sought to alleviate. Stocks of many module manufacturers dropped noticeably after the announcement.

What About Global Impacts?

Although China’s decision to halt solar development this year reduces global solar demand, the resulting price reductions from an oversupply of panels may help spur solar growth around the world. India, which pledged to double renewable energy to 175 GW by 2022, is expected to benefit from these lower solar prices, as are countries in Southeast Asia.

Overall, by further driving down solar costs these changes are expected to help solar energy grow around the world and compete with fossil fuels. We’ll continue to follow these changes as they develop.

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Topics: solar policy

How to Optimize Your Solar Sales with Proposal Templates

Posted by Gwen Brown on May 30, 2018 6:05:52 PM

You know it’s critical that your solar sales proposals are compelling. After all, they are the tangible communication of why a customer should choose your company to install their solar system. But it’s not enough just to know what makes a proposal effective—you also need an efficient process for developing them. With a nimble proposal creation process, you’ll have more time for talking to customers and other aspects of your day-to-day work.

Templates are an indispensable tool for streamlining your proposal development process. By standardizing certain elements of your proposals, templates make it easy to ensure your proposals are professional and consistent. In today’s article, we share some of the ways you can use templates to make creating the perfect proposal a seamless process.

Aurora’s proposal tools make it easy for companies to create beautiful and flexible templates, and in this post we’ll highlight some of the ways Aurora customers can get the most out of those features. Even if you’re not an Aurora customer, however, incorporating these strategies in your proposal templates—in whatever program you use—can help you put your best foot forward without reinventing the wheel every time you prepare a quote for a prospective client.

[Note: Changes to company proposal templates in Aurora need to be implemented by the administrator of your account. We recommend each company take a little time to set up their proposal templates since it will save time on every solar sale.]

1. Standardize company branding 

Sales proposals are a key way that your company presents itself to prospective customers. As such, you want to make sure that all of the visual elements of your solar company’s brand—like fonts, colors, and your logo—are consistent with your company's image elsewhere (website, ads, brochures, etc.).

Standardizing these elements in your solar sales proposal templates will save you and your team time by eliminating the need to make manual adjustments. (A few minutes for each proposal can really add up!) It will also ensure that errors and inconsistencies aren’t introduced.

Customize your branding in solar sales proposal templates for a consistent look and streamlined process.  Aurora users can customize elements of company branding like colors and logo. For an overview of how to do this, see Configuring Your Account in our Help Center. 

2. Standardize the information included in your proposals

In the process of talking with customers, chances are you’ve learned a lot about what information to include in your proposals based on customer priorities and the kinds of questions you often receive. Using templates to standardize the details included in each proposal, and the format that information is presented in, ensures that your proposals always meet your standards.

Additionally, your template should ideally be set up so that it easily pulls in all of the information you’ve already prepared, such as design and financing details. Aurora has made this easy by providing a plethora of different placeholders to fit each company’s needs—from cash flow charts to lists of components to desired images. One of the best things about these placeholders is that they automatically populate with the relevant information about your design, such as 2D and 3D images of the system and financing information based on the different scenarios you’ve modeled.

A solar sales proposal template with placeholder that pull in project information is a key way to save time and sell more solar.Aurora provides a wide array of placeholders that can be added to proposal templates. Each of these fields will automatically pull in the relevant information from your solar project. For a detailed overview of how to customize proposals with desired placeholders in Aurora, see our Help Center

3. Don't start from scratch

While you want your templates to be tailored to your processes and brand, that doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch when creating them. In Aurora, we provide several proposal templates created by professional designers which you can copy and modify as needed. That could mean adding additional pages with other information, replacing images (including background images), or customizing the language.

Similarly, if you’re using another tool for creating proposals, you may want to draw from existing company materials when creating your proposal template, such as using imagery from brochures or pulling in your company’s origin story from your website. Not only will this save time, it will also help you maintain consistency in your communications.

An example of a designer solar sales proposal template in Aurora.Aurora users can utilize several customizable proposal templates created by professional designers (cover of one shown above). Even if you're not using Aurora, chances are you have existing company materials that can make creating a proposal template easier.

4. Bonus: Create a variety of templates to suit different customer priorities

Having one template is a great start, since it will save time for your team members every time they put together a quote. However, an effective proposal should highlight the details that a customer cares about. That means, depending on the client, you may want to focus on different aspects of the proposed system.

For instance, you might want to devote more of the proposal to explaining different financing options if you know a particular customer is very focused on that. Or, you could have a proposal with more detail on the components you'll use and why if a client is especially interested in the technology used in their system.

You can take your proposal creation to the next level by creating a couple of templates for different scenarios, giving your team the flexibility to quickly create the perfect proposal for every solar sales lead.


As the solar industry becomes more competitive, it's important to put in place processes that allow you to achieve the same results with less time and effort. Fortunately, there are a lot of technologies that can help—from saving truck rolls by using remote site assessment software, to automating the PV design process, to proposal generation tools. The use of flexible proposal templates, especially if they pre-populate with information about your project design, is another valuable tool for streamlining your solar sales process and bolstering your bottom line.

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