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Get Ahead of the Curve in the Solar Industry

The solar industry in the U.S. is growing at a breakneck pace. A recent report by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association states that, for the first time in well over a decade, the U.S. is expected to install “more solar capacity than world leader Germany.” The report explains that the growth is being driven by “a record level of residential installations” as well as strong performance in the utility sector.
Existing solar infrastructure can produce enough energy to power 1.7 million average American homes, and that number will continue to rise in the coming years.

Solar power is getting cheaper, enjoys tax incentives in some states, and is increasingly in demand as realities about the impacts of oil and gas production and consumption become more stark. There has never been a better time to dive into the solar market. As new markets emerge and new products are developed, those with the applicable skills and knowledge will have access to many unique business and career opportunities.

That’s where we come in. We offer comprehensive, challenging, technical training that relates to all aspects of solar. Our solar courses are taught by sought-after professionals with many decades of experience in the industry. They’ve seen it all, done it all, and made all the mistakes so you don’t have to. Whether you’re interested in installing a small residential system, expanding an existing business, or doing a massive commercial deal, we have the course for you. Take a look:

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How I Convinced ISPQ Master Solar Trainer Ken Thames to Use Cammpus to Teach Online (It Only Took 3 Years)

Mt.-EvensIt’s hard not to like Ken Thames.  He’s a master electrician who’s been installing solar for 15 years in the mountains of Colorado.  He’s a great listener – when I watch him teach a class he’s meticulous about understanding each question and addressing it openly and honestly.  People love him.

Ken doesn’t use computers and he’s proud of that fact.  I’ve heard him brag about it many times and always was a little jealous that he could pull it off in this age of high-tech.  For three years I pitched Ken on the idea of teaching online because his approach is absolutely perfect for it.  He’s got so much knowledge and such a structured way of delivering it that I knew he’d be amazing at teaching online if I could convince him to do it.  But how?

Ultimately Ken had to be convinced of two things – here’s how we accomplished both:

  1. Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 12.17.19 PMYou can still build real-life relationships in an online training.  Ken is a reserved guy, but he feeds off the personal interaction in a training – you can’t log the hours he has unless you are energized by it.  We start every online class with a personal phone call from the instructor to introduce himself.  It sounds simple, but it’s important stuff.  We also supplemented Ken’s class with periodic conference calls where people can ask questions.  Again, it’s very basic but important.  Making these connections helped Ken get loosened up and participating on the Course Message Wall.  This variety made it feel like real relationships were possible.
  2. Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 12.19.25 PMOnline classes can be truly awesome.  Great learning can happen and you can have an impact on people’s careers and the industry.  This is the part that really mattered to Ken, and I give him a lot of credit for taking a leap of faith with using Cammpus.  There are two critical pieces to getting awesome results in an online class: First is lots of instructor engagement (see above).  Second is asking the students to work hard and complete assignments that measure their ability.  Whether it’s a lot of practice tests, or a Capstone Project, or other homework that showcases their new skills, it’s critical to expect mastery.  The primary advantage online classes have is the time for each student to apply what their learning.  In a classroom you don’t have time to help everyone submit assignments that demonstrate mastery.

Ken teaches the 40 Hour Advanced Solar PV Training, and the NABCEP Installer Exam Prep Course using Cammpus.  He contributes to HeatSpring Magazine – things like this free lesson on Battery PV Systems.

Watching Ken warm to the idea of teaching online was my biggest professional accomplishment in the first half of 2013 – sort of lame, I know, but it gives me hope that all of the super-experts in our industry might make a similar decision.  To use education technology to have a bigger impact and build their legacy.

 

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Renewable Energy Lessons From Harvard Business School’s Study on U.S. Competitiveness

Renewable Energy Lessons from Study on Competitiveness

On November 15th, Harvard Business School hosted a discussion on ways companies and other stakeholders can boost U.S. competitiveness. It took place at The Henry Ford in Detroit, and the case discussion was about the rise, fall, and rise of the Big Three U.S. automakers. The room was packed with auto industry insiders and other local business leaders. I just listened and took a lot of notes – here are two lessons I learned that we can apply to the renewable energy and building industries. If we do nothing else, these are the things that will make our industry more competitive.:

  1. Diversify. Detroit’s fall was dramatic because it’s economy was completely reliant on the auto industry. When the auto industry sputtered, the city was decimated. This is why I love solar PV, solar thermal, geothermal, energy efficiency, wind, hydronics, natural gas, heat pumps, and all of the manufacturers, wholesalers, and dealers that make up the value chain. Arguing that a single technology is better than everything else isn’t just silly, it’s bad for the long-term health of the industry. We want to be an industry of relentless, positive action – to continually move the conversation forward – because a vibrant, resilient industry (or business) is highly diversified.
  2. Invest in the ‘Commons’. Think Silicon Valley. In the early days, auto makers gathered in Michigan to share suppliers, talent, and infrastructure. Through the seventies and eighties competition became so acrimonious, and outsourcing so prevalent, that very little sharing was possible. This helped each company execute their deliberate strategies by giving them complete control over their ecosystem – so it helped them meet their quarterly numbers with more certainty. It also killed innovation. I know there’s a lot of brand loyalty in our industry – I see it especially with HVAC and geothermal products. Of course it’s necessary to be competitive with one another, but I worry that sometimes people get entrenched in their battles and write anyone off that works with a competitor. We’ve felt that at HeatSpring at times over the years, and it always seems counter productive – keeping doors and relationships open to outsiders is good business.

What is your time horizon for making decisions about your business? If your plan is to be around for a long time, then this is a call to action. Anybody can do these things in a hundred small ways, and the sum of those actions will define where we are in 50 years.

How do you plan to diversify and invest in the ‘Commons’ in 2013?

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Community Solar Lessons Learned in Vermont – Jeff Forward @ Renewable Energy Vermont 2012

At the beginning of October, Renewable Energy Vermont held their annual conference. There were a number of amazing presentations and some struck me more then others. For the ones I really enjoyed, I decided to follow up with the presenters to get more color on the topics they presented about. I learned a lot at the conference and there was a lot of activity around what needed to be done to push the industry to the next level. If you’re working in the renewable energy industry in Vermont, you should join REV.

Community Solar

Community solar, which is also called group net metering, or virtual net metering is a rather simple concept. It means that power generated from a single renewable energy project can be applied against the utility bill of many meters, as long as all of the meters (the production and end use meters) are in the same utility service territory.

It’s a great concept and it has received support from the industry because many peoples’ roofs won’t work with solar, but they want to buy solar power. Community solar solves this problem. It also solves some issues around monetizing tax credits. Massachusetts also has community solar, but it’s referred to as virtual net metering. This allows (insert huge bank name here) that is based in downtown Boston to buy 10 acres of land outside of Boston and put a huge solar array on this land. They can then apply the power production to reduce their bills in the Boston location, and also monetize all the tax credits directly.

Back to Jeff 

Jeff Forward was looking for an investment that provided a reasonable return and helped the environment. He decided to build a community solar project on his farm.  He then recruited 3 of his neighbors to join his group and they now pay him for the solar credits they receive from their utility.  He figures his $30,000 net investment returns him about $3,000 in revenue for a 10% return on his investment.  Not bad considering bank CD’s are returning less than 1% and his retirement investments seemed to always lose money.

Jeff’s presentation materials provide a very complete story and I encourage everyone to read through it.

 

I decided to follow up with Jeff to get some color on a few of the points he discussed.

What were your huge lessons learned around group net metering? It sounds like billing was an issue. 

▪   Setting up a simple and transparent billing process has been frustrating.  The whole model is based on a revenue stream from the group members and for it to work, group members need to be able to see on their bill how much they are being credited. It seems like such a simple thing, but it’s unbelievably difficult. So far I have spent an entire year working with my utility to get a summary of the solar credits that were attributed to each members bill and we have still not completely resolved it. To be fair, this requires the utility to make changes to their billing software and that apparently is more difficult than it would seem. And utilities have been reluctant to go too far down the path of changing their billing system until the state has signed off on all the standards and procedures for net meter billing.  It will be easier once  the state said “this is how you do it” and then require all the utilities do it the same way.

What would be the ideal billing situation?

▪   On every bill it should say: 1) how much power a member  consumed; 2) what was the output of the array; 3) what was their share of the solar production; 4) how much they were credited for the solar production; 5) and then how much they now owe for power.  Each members bill would then be the net of what they used minus what they were credited.  The solar credit should be a line item on the front of the bill so that each member knows exactly how much is being credited each month.  It needs to be transparent.

▪   Where we ran into problems is that initially the only thing the utility was reporting was the net usage, but they would not show the methodology. So, nobody could figure out how much of their bill was supposed to go to me (as the owner of the community solar project). The group members also could not figure out how much power they used.  It has been terribly confusing and frustrating.

You mentioned large groups might be a problem. Why?

▪   For my scale system, the output is still quite small.  The total cost of the project was $85,000, but with tax credits, incentives and depreciation deductions the net cost was about $30,000.  However, the revenue is only worth about $3,000 per year.  With that small a revenue stream, there is not a lot of room for administrative costs.  You couldn’t for example hire someone to do the billing or it would eat up a good portion of the revenue. Perhaps the easiest way to set up a group would be to get one or two large members.  Then perhaps the billing would be easier.

▪   The margins are pretty low.  While I like the rate of return I am getting, it is still pretty small in absolute terms.   Small things like a customer service charge can have a measurable impact on the return.  For example, I am required to have  an additional meter at the site to record the solar output. The meter charge is $16.75 per month. This is nearly 7% of the revenue of the system over a year.  Clearly I am not going to get rich off this investment.

After doing it, do you think community solar could be a business model by itself? i.e. could a business just do community solar in Vermont or will installers start offering as part of their service?

▪   Absolutely there is a business model and potential for it. I like the idea a lot. There are a lot of folks that just don’t have a good solar resource at their home and would like to be in the game. There are other folks who don’t have the resources to invest, but would much rather their power came from a clean renewable source. Consider the Vermont Cow Power program. It was introduced about 10 years ago. In this program you can pay more for your electricity, up to $.04/kWh more.   The utility then uses that money to pay farmers $.04/kWh over the wholesale power rate for electricity they produce from an on-farm anaerobic digester. It is very, very successful. Before launching the program, they did a survey of their customer base and found that between 2% and 5% of their customer base would be interested in such a program.  That estimate has proven to be true.  My community solar project is similar except that my group members don’t pay anything more for their electricity at all.  Sure, I get all of the financial benefit, but I took all of the risk too.  I am sure other models could be developed whereby members could share in the risk and the financial benefit.

▪   Finally, there are a lot of people that would like to invest in something that they believe in, rather than handing their savings over to Wall Street.  Community solar, or community wind for that matter, offers a vehicle for folks to make a moral investment and make a reasonable return on that investment.  In Europe, there are places where average folks can invest in shares of a local renewable energy project and then receive a  return based on the project’s production.  Folks sink their retirement savings into these projects and then receive a predictable dividend for life.  What better place to put your retirement investments?  Renewable energy projects can generate a highly reliable and predictable income over a long period of time.  I would much rather invest in a specific project than I would in a company producing a product.  Companies come and go.  But the sun always shines and the wind always blows.  Where else can you get such a great dividend?

Are you thinking about doing it again?

Absolutely! In fact, we are breaking ground in the next phase of this project next week.  It will be completed before Christmas.  We are essentially doubling the size of our array.  When I installed the first phase, I buried an extra conduit so that I could expand without a lot more trenching.  By the first of the year our system will be 25 kW and we will be completely powering five households.

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The OPEN PV Project: See Real Time Solar PV Installations from 2000 to 2012 and More Cool Info

I just stumbled upon The Open PV Project that was compiled by NREL.

It provides some cool vanity metrics, like a PV map of solar PV installations from 2000 to 2012, and so some very useful state by state market data that can be used for market research. You can also submit your projects to the database, which I would encourage you to do.

 

The Project Has a number of cool functions.

1. “The Market Mapper” Get nationwide and state by state information on the number of installations and costs per year, the number of installations based on system size. Very useful for market research and it’s all displayed in graphs.

2. “Installations Over Time”

This maps shows the number of installations in the entire US from 2000 to 2012. The map is fun to watch and shows the impact that state policy has on the adoption of solar.

3. “Project Contributors” The Open PV Project is based on submissions from contractors and other agencies to submit their projects. The project contributors sections allows you to see the companies that are submitting data and also for your company to submit projects.

4. State Rankings. The state ranking table is an simple and interactive table that displays state ranking based on installed capacity and installed cost.

5. Utility Scale PV. The last tab just deals with utility scale projects in the US.

 

 

 

 

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Jigar Shah’s Call to Arms For Small Solar Companies Everywhere

This week I flew to Chicago for the Illinois Solar Energy Association fund raiser.  Jigar Shah delivered the keynote to 70 registrants, packed into Emmett’s Place in Palatine.  I left at 9:30pm with an excited sense that Solar PV in Illinois is going to take off.

This was my second Jigar Shah presentation, (here is my first) and I’m on the verge of becoming a groupie – the guy spews useful information at a prolific rate.  He delivered great Illinois-specific policy insights, but my favorite topic he covered was, “When explosive growth happens here in Illinois, and all of the big, national, solar installation companies begin flooding the market, and installed prices drop to $2.75/watt, how can you possibly compete?”

When Jigar asked this question, the room got quiet, because it’s a very real concern for the small businesses that have been pushing a big rock up a hill for a long time.  They’ve built a market, invested in lobbying on the state level, and it would be bittersweet to watch the industry take off if they couldn’t reap the benefits.  Here was Jigar’s encouraging message:

  • Worried you can’t compete with bigger solar companies?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Some of you might get bought, as the bigger players don’t know your market.  And some of you will grow to be the biggest players in this market because you know and care about your communities.  That does still matter.
  • You guys have a lower cost structure than the big guys.  Once you can get to 1 container/month, you’ll have the same materials cost structure, and you don’t have layers of management and overhead that the big guys do.  The most profitable solar contractors in the U.S. are 1 office, usually a husband and wife team, with 2 crews.
  • The only thing big companies have that you lack, is confidence.  You charge more because you plan to do one job per month and you need that job to cover salaries and overhead for that whole month.  Build a model to find out what sort of volume you need to do to install for $2.75/watt and start working toward that.  You have to believe it’s possible for it to work.
  • The biggest impediment to you making money in the solar business is the fact that you love solar so much, so you forget about the basic principles of business: you have to have more money coming in than going out.
  • Everyone here needs to understand third party financing.  It’s not as complicated as you think it is, and it’s a fundamentally easier sell, so it’s opening up bigger and bigger markets. (Note: HeatSpring has a free online Solar Lease Training.)
  • It’s critical that you understand how the SRECs are going to be valued here in Illinois.  Springfield is far, but you’ve got to go.  You think you’re above lobbying and getting involved with government, but they need to see your face, and they need to hear where you’ve installed solar, and who your customers are.  They care about that stuff and it makes a big difference. (Note: HeatSpring has a free online Understanding SRECs training.)

Events like this are a great reason to join ISEA, or whatever your local organization is.  There’s no substitute for live networking, getting involved, and getting the inside scoop on what’s coming.

The Illinois market feels like Massachusetts in 2008.   With the Renewable Energy World analysis of the Solar PV Market in Massachusetts in the back of my mind, I felt like I could provide useful lessons for how to win as the industry grows.  I truly think we’re going to see something great happen in Illinois in the coming years.

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“If you can’t install solar at $3.45/watt, you’re going out of business.” Straight Talk on Solar with Jigar Shah at NESEA 2012

Jigar Shah was my favorite presenter at this year’s Building Energy Conference.  Mr. Shah founded SunEdison in 2003 and sold it five years later for $200 million.  Here are some quotes he offered up in the “Energy Subsidies and the Future of Solar: Where Do We Go From Here?” session:

He outlined a 25kw project in Kentucky installed for $3.45/watt, a 5MW project in North Carolina installed for $1.85/watt, and projects at Walmart getting installed for $2.05/watt.

“If you’re a solar installer and you can’t get to these numbers over the next couple years, you should start looking for a job.  You’re going to be out of business.”

Several in the audience lamented the fact that their utility isn’t easier to deal with and puts too many hurdles in place around permitting and interconnection.  Mr. Shah shared his experiences putting at least one utility into bankruptcy and urged people to think of utilities as any other company that can be taken on and defeated.  It was a subversive message that felt powerful and a little dangerous.  The audience loved it.

When asked about what incentives the solar industry should be pushing for, he said:

“It doesn’t matter what subsidies exist for oil and gas – we’re in an age of austerity.  Pigs get fed and hogs get slaughtered.  Solar looks like a hog right now.”

During the Q&A session a member of the audience criticized Mr. Shah’s focus on solar, saying building efficiency investments have a bigger potential impact, to which Mr. Shah responded,

“I hate building efficiency people because you’re so self-righteous.”

He went on to explain that the progress made in the solar industry was hard won and as much as he would like to do more for other technologies, it’s not that simple.  He urged other industries to do what it takes to make change happen, rather than criticizing the efforts of others.

“Solar thermal is a backwater industry because companies in the industry refuse to step up when it comes time to pass the hat and fund the trade organizations and build infrastructure.” (this point clearly applies to the geothermal heat pump industry too)

Mr. Shah is abrasive, but he pulls it off because he has accomplished so much and is surprisingly warm and likable, even when he’s telling you you’re wrong.  His style stood out as honest, militant, and effective.  I left energized.

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3 Learnings from Last Week’s #Solarchat and What it Says about the Future of the Industry

Last week a number of solar super stars on twitter decided to discuss how we can mainstream solar. The conversion happened on twitter.

I’m not going to give a recap or discuss what we talked about, you can find great recaps on the #solarchat here on EcoOutfitters by @ecoOutfitters or Renewable Energy World by @solarfred.

While I was watching the stream of tweets there were three things that really struck me about how well the solar industry is developing.  After all, I don’t notice the geothermal crowd having #geochats.

1. The solar industry is getting organized, really organized. You can see this in how potentially bad stories have been turned around by the solar industry rather quickly.

2. The solar industry is constantly looking to improve. If there is one industry in the US that appears to have EVERYTHING going for it, it’s the solar industry. It’s the fastest growing, costs are dropping, public support and interest are at an all time high. Yet, people are still connecting over twitter to discuss what more needs to be done. Why is this important? Many of the critical relationships between vendors, experts and influeners are being formed so that the industry can learn faster, and respond to change more quickly. This is great news.

3. The solar tribe is loud, vocal, and visible. Why is solar getting more attention then other technologies that are more efficient (from a technical perspective) like solar thermal or geothermal heat pumps, or more cost effective (like energy efficiency.This is some the technologistics have a hard time understand about the solar industry and it’s something has quiet a few answers to it. One of the largest is simply visibility. The solar crowd is loud! The people that love solar REALLY LOVE solar and they’re not afraid to show it, talk about, invest their own time in finding and organizing solar lovers. I’ve found  lot of people who work in the geothermal or energy efficiency but even they do not promote the technology as hard core as an amateur who does it because they love the technology, not because they’re getting paid.

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Lessons Learned from Inventing a Solar Installation Tool and How it Can Help you Sell More Projects

Let me first start by saying that this article is indeed a piece of shameless promotion. It is about a solar installation tool that I invented while I was running a crew installing residential photovoltaic arrays in Massachusetts.

At first, I was not going to share the story and details of the tool. However, I now believe that the story of how and why we created the tool is a useful one. Also, we’ve received some initial sales and positive feedback from solar installers, leading me to believe other installers will find it useful. Lastly, everyone in the industry is looking to increase profitability by making high quality installations go faster and with less manpower and time. The PV Pal address all three of the issues. Here is the story behind its invention, what we learned and how you can apply it to sell more solar projects to homeowners, and how you can get more information on the PV Pal.

The Story – Why did we Invent the Tool?

The story is indeed very simple. Anyone who has installed residential solar knows that the hardest part of the array installation is getting the first row in and parallel with the bottom of the roof.  It MUST look parallel. This can be challenging for an experienced crew and very difficult for contractors new to being on a roof. The rapid growth and demand for solar installers has created a few precarious situations where contractors new to, and maybe nervous of,  the roof find themselves on the edge of a roof trying to install solar panels. This is the situation I found myself in.

Continue reading

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HeatSpring Instructor Joe Jordan’s TEDx Talk on Solar & the Future of Humanity

One of my favorite things to do is listen to Joe Jordan talk about the the universe and all the natural phenomena going on around us at all times.  He, along with maybe E.O. Wilson, is better at appreciating the wonders of our planet than anyone I know.  He has the ability to make you feel like a kid.

If you have thirteen minutes to think about big questions and how the solar industry might help to make the world a better place to live, then check out the video of Joe’s recent TEDx talk in Santa Cruz, CA.  HeatSpring classes are geared toward technical expertise and business solutions, so it’s fun to step back now and again to appreciate the big picture.  Thanks Joe!

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