By Joel Lusk, CEO and Co-Founder, Bright Harvest Solar
As large residential solar installers fuel industry consolidation, some site assessment tools are going in-house, raising concerns for independent installers. In the meantime, the industry still needs better methods for evaluating sites and designing systems. Joel Lusk looks at what it will take to change this.
Back in January, Vivint announced its acquisition of Solmetric, the company famous for revolutionizing how installers analyze sites to quantify shading with their digital SunEye tool. The acquisition raises an important concern. Installers with the largest market share are fueling consolidation, as seen in other moves like SolarCity’s acquisition of integrated-racking manufacturer Zep.
While Zep’s racking and Solmetric’s evaluation tools have not been pulled from the general market in order to exclusively benefit their parent corporations, these moves are giving pause to independent installers who may not want their purchases supporting the bottom line of competitors. This move also spotlights the lack of innovation in competitive products or service offerings to improve the efficiency of the residential solar design process.
While the SunEye successfully improved installers’ ability to analyze shading impacts, it still left installers on the roof taking these specialized photographs exposed to great liability. Even though tools like the SunEye and Solar Pathfinder have provided a way to quantify shading impacts critical to production estimating, both still require a site visit with a ladder. In order for residential solar to become a common household asset, the industry needs to adopt new methods of evaluating sites and designing systems. Likewise, with benchmarking energy production so critical in third-party ownership — and third-party ownership is still a critical part of the sales mix — any guesswork about production because of costs associated with conventional on-site visits cannot be tolerated.
The Q1 2014 GTM Research U.S. PV Leaderboard showed SolarCity with a 26% market share of U.S. residential installations and the next top 9 installers comprising another 26%. The largest solar companies have the resources to develop proprietary methods to reduce some of the costs associated with project development, but does that mean that the other 48% of solar installers can’t have access to these methods or better?
At a time when soft costs are under significant scrutiny, remote site assessment and system design are ripe candidates for cost reduction strategies. NREL’s August 2013 report Non- Hardware (“Soft”) Cost- Reduction Roadmap for Residential and Small Commercial Solar Photovoltaics, 2013-2020 attributed $0.67/watt to customer acquisition related costs broken down as such:
● $0.33/W for marketing and advertising
● $0.11/W for system design
● $0.23/W for all other customer acquisition costs
NREL’s study pointed to software automation in system design and site analysis that could make a lot of these cost savings possible. With site evaluation, design, and other overhead comprising nearly $0.33/W of system cost, installers stand to gain efficiency and lower cost by reconsidering how they utilize valuable resources, gather site data, design systems, deliver proposals to the customer, and create system drawings.
Process engineers and software developers recommend re-engineering a process before automating it; otherwise you will likely automate an inefficient process. Standard practices in the solar industry have not strayed far from the conventional wisdom of site evaluation – design – permit – install. Radically new methods for evaluating solar sites, designing systems, and reducing the cost of residential project development have been missing — until now.
Imagine if your sales staff could provide a prospect with a system design on a 3D illustration of their home, an accurate production estimate based on a custom design informed by a per-module shading analysis, get a signed contract, and give a fully dimensioned site plan to your permit preparation staff without having to visit the site.
Using a process that combines building information modeling and well-developed principles from fields including photogrammetry and geodesign to model each unique site, installers can deliver accurate system layouts and production estimates to their prospects without a site visit. This process eliminates the need for shading impact guesswork and whether the proposed system size and configuration will fit. This vision is possible now. By using remote site assessment and system design, installers are already realizing substantial savings, increasing close rates, and shrinking close-to-install times. Bottlenecks caused by scheduling site visits, taking on-site measurements, and then handing this information off for other staff to manually reconstruct again are drastically reduced or almost eliminated.
This iterative modeling process allows information about the site and the system to flow from the model, informing all downstream stakeholders across the solar value chain: everyone from investors (in third-party ownership), incentive agencies, homeowners, sales staff, AHJs, and crew leads to long term support and O&M teams.
A project development system like this won’t make PV a common household asset tomorrow, but if your installation company is part of the other 48%, ask yourself if you’re satisfied with the evaluation and design status quo in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Joel Lusk is CEO and Co-founder of Bright Harvest Solar, provider of remote residential solar PV design layouts.
Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed in this site by persons not affiliated with PV Solar Report reflect the judgment of the author and not necessarily that of PV Solar Report.