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By Randy Stearns July 2,2009
Why Escs Should Offer Solar Panel Installation Services
Imagine a subsystem that you could add to your existing installations that significantly increases your total project revenue, installs easily, requires no calibration, programming, or maintenance, and lasts for more than 30 years. Add to that the news that the federal and some state and local governments will actually subsidize your client’s purchase. You’d want to start offering that solution, right? Well, this exact scenario exists today.
I am, of course, talking about solar electric or photovoltaic (PV) system installations (in other words, solar panels).
Any product category with so many positive features is going to attract a lot of attention and competition. However, the typical electronic systems contractor (ESC) is ideally positioned to successfully offer and deliver on PV installations, because many of his skills, equipment, and facilities can be applied and leveraged in this adjacent product category.
COMMONALITIES WITH ESC
PV systems can be installed in both commercial and residential buildings that are either existing or under construction. Installation typically requires coordination with other trades and can involve design partners. Your familiarity with the local construction ecosystem and the relationships that you enjoy with other trades and industry partners will serve you well. Your same trucks, tools, warehousing, and personnel can be utilized.
Perhaps the similarity that offers the greatest competitive advantage is in the area of sales and marketing. You can sell PV solutions through the same channels—architects, builders, designers, trade partners—and to the same target market with which you’ve already established a reputation and following. In fact, because PVs are most often sold as a retrofit product, you can approach your entire existing customer base with a new offering that has the benefit of saving them money and allowing them to feel more socially and environmentally conscious.
There are technology tie-ins that will help to differentiate you from competitors in this field as well. If you install integrated control systems now, then offering energy monitoring and management is a natural step toward offering renewable energy solutions like PV.
THE LEARNING CURVE
As you would expect, there are also challenges to adding PV installations to your scope of work. Many states have special licensing requirements for PV installers. In California, where I work, if you have an electrical contractors license (C-10), then you are permitted to install PV systems and do not have to obtain the specialty C-46 solar contractor license.
Of course, it is expected that PV installers thoroughly understand and file all the paperwork required to take advantage of solar tax credits and rebates. This requires some research into the local, state, and federal programs, application process and paperwork requirements.
Competency in PV technologies and system design will have to be developed. Skills such as determining the appropriate site and assessing site conditions, performing basic energy audits, system sizing and calculations, selecting the appropriate PV technology and products, and developing construction drawings will need to be developed. There are many excellent solar workshops and training programs available throughout the country that provide training on these topics. Having spoken with several residential systems industry veterans, including those in my own organization, who have gone through these trainings, the feedback was that the technology is easily understood and well within their comfort zone. Classroom expertise is one thing, but field experience is equally critical to a successful migration into this field. Residential systems integrators looking to move more rapidly into PV installations would do well to hire experienced solar installers and project managers to accelerate the process.
As the solar industry matures and product offerings expand, there will be room for installers with varying specialties, allowing for differentiation. The industry continues to experience significant product development and innovation, which over time will reduce commoditization. Thin-film, building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) panels, micro-inverters, and other developments will require a more sophisticated approach relative to design expertise and your business model. This is something that is in every successful system integrator’s playbook.
Randy Stearns (randys@ engenv.com) is president of Alameda, California-based Engineered Environments.