SolarCity Looks to Expand Commercial Solar Market with ZS Peak

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A couple of interesting questions have come up lately in the solar industry: Is vertical integration or specialization better? And should panels face south or west?

These questions may not seem related, but SolarCity (Nasdaq:SCTY) has answers to both.

Late last year, the #1 residential solar installer in the U.S. acquired Zep Solar, a provider of PV module mounting systems. SolarCity said that because Zep’s product portfolio works as a comprehensive system, they saw major reductions in the cost and complexity of designing, shipping, storing, and installing PV systems — with installation crews doubling the amount of of solar they can install on a daily basis.

The acquisition put SolarCity on track to become more vertically integrated, and was followed this year by its purchase of panel maker Silevo. At that time, CTO Peter Rive said SolarCity was planning to be “the most vertically integrated solar company in the world.”

This week, the company answered the second question — with more news about its Zep product. SolarCity unveiled a new product in its Zep Solar line: ZS Peak, a flat-roof solar mounting system. The system’s layout? East-west.

This time, SolarCity is not focusing on the residential market. The company says ZS Peak will significantly expand the addressable market for commercial solar, because it’s twice as fast to install and can generate significantly more solar electricity from each rooftop than alternatives for the commercial market.

Like the Zep residential solar system, ZS Peak provides a snap-together system to simplify and accelerate installation. SolarCity estimates that ZS Peak can increase generation capacity on flat-roof buildings by 20-50% per building, and do so without requiring any penetrations.

SolarCity also says that the system’s dense, east-west layout structure will allow for up to 20% more solar panels to be fit on standard roofs and up to 50% more panels on lightweight roofs, such as those commonly found on warehouses.

How does the new system make this possible? Jack West, President and CTO of Zep Solar, filled us in on some of ZS Peak’s advantages.

A couple of factors come into play, he said, one being something we don’t always think of in relation to solar: wind. When panels are tilted up to the south, that results in a triangle that catches the wind and can require a deflector. With an east-west system, the deflector can be replaced with another panel — and the panels can be placed closer together.

The ZS Peak system has improved aerodynamics even compared to other east-west systems, minimizing the lift of wind on the panels. The east-west arrangement also helps with the shading profile, which is more forgiving.

All of this results in more panels fitting on a roof — and allows the system to be installed as a lightweight, non-penetrating system on many roofs that would otherwise require the solar panels to be bolted down. Because there’s an aisle between the panels only every other row rather than between every row of panels, that aisle can be made wider. That means better operations and maintenance, and increased safety for firefighters.

The increase in panels per roof is particularly valuable in the commercial market, because conventional flat-roof solar systems typically power less than half of a commercial building’s load.

ZS Peak’s east-west orientation goes beyond just allowing installers to fit more solar panels on each roof than standard south-facing systems. It also captures peak power production throughout a longer period of the day. By lengthening power production time and eliminating the typical midday spike of standard solar systems, SolarCity can also make more efficient use of solar inverters to further reduce costs for customers.

SolarCity is currently installing its first project with ZS Peak on a building in Quincy, Massachusetts, and expects to begin installing the product in volume in January.