Randy Batchelor was inspired by a high school science teacher to follow a career path in engineering, and his passion for the environment led him to work in the solar industry.
Now, as instructor of HeatSpring’s Megawatt Design course, along with Ryan Mayfield, his goal is to spark passion in his students the way his teacher inspired him.
By showing solar industry members how to design larger solar systems that yield a big impact, he’s doing just that.
“I’m in solar because I believe in it. It’s all about the climate and resilience,” says Batchelor. “I want to enable people in the industry by educating them. The best way I can amplify my impact on the climate and our energy problems is by enabling others,” he says.
Helping Small Companies Design Big Projects
The course is geared toward designers and engineers, especially those in mid-sized solar companies who have experience with residential or small commercial projects and are looking to expand their skill set and design bigger projects—500 kW to 5 MW.
A typical Megawatt Design student might work for a solar company that is fielding requests for bigger projects and needs to understand how to implement them, he says.
“Many businesses in the solar industry have grown from residential roots, to installing large commercial and utility scale projects,” Batchelor says. “A lot of PV designers tend to follow the same progression, working first for small companies, designing small projects, and then moving on to the big leagues. This class is meant to serve both these businesses and their leaders and the individuals following that path.”
However, because large solar power plants have nearly become a “commodity,” some people can build startups, attract capital and do larger projects “right out of the gate,” he says. That’s all the more reason for the smaller companies to learn as much as possible.
“There are many startups that raise some capitol and jump right into building large commercial solar, but that’s a really challenging thing to do,” he says. “These companies need to have an experienced management team and be prepared to invest in training less experienced team members, and we can help them do that.”
Designing Projects Faster, with Better ROI
The Megawatt Design course can also help them focus on how to design projects faster and to provide a better return on investment.
The challenge, for those who want to design and build bigger projects, is making them as economical as possible, he says. That’s a main focus of the Megawatt Design course.
“What we’re really focused on is how students can design projects faster, that better meet the goals of the company and the client,” he says.
Often, solar designers feel much pressure to produce high yields and low costs, he says. This can distract companies from the benefits of developing projects quickly.
“Optimization is important, so is speed,” he says.
By speeding up the process, companies can cut engineering and labor costs. When a project starts operating more quickly, the client starts saving money—and reducing greenhouse gases—faster. What’s more, when companies implement shorter life-cycle projects, they can complete more projects, allowing them to reduce overhead costs and boost company growth.
Prioritizing Your Design Efforts
“It’s really about prioritization and where to put your efforts,” says Batchelor.
What’s most important, he says: Designers should optimize projects before the proposals go out.
To help meet these goals, during the first week of the course, Batchelor and Mayfield focus on the life cycle of a project, from pre-sales and project development through permitting and commissioning.
“We talk about who is involved at various stages and we identify best practices that students should consider to help them reduce risk and time during the design process,” says Batchelor.
Understanding codes, especially electric codes, is an important part of this process. Megawatt Design students, who come from all over the world, are all subject to different code requirements.
For example, for some, module-level rapid shutdown becomes effective in 2019. But some states are still under 2008 codes, which don’t require this.
“We don’t cover every part of the code, that’s not what the course is about, but we cover the fundamentals, and we focus on the parts of the code that may apply uniquely to larger systems, and those that have the biggest impact on cost, overall system architecture and equipment selection,” says Batchelor.
Getting Lower-Cost Designs Approved
The course covers issues that include changes to rules about AFCI, rapid shutdown and grounding, how those have changed over time, and why. Megawatt Design provides information that designers can leverage to influence code officials in order to get lower-cost (but safe) designs approved, he says.
Also important in the course is understanding the role of constraints in design, says Batchelor. These might be site characteristics or costs that affect the ultimate design.
Different constraints can lead to very different design choices and in fact, can drive the design, but designers often don’t think of constraints in this light, according to an article in SolarPro Magazine, “Design Optimization in Constrained Applications.”
It’s important that designers take a step back and look at constraints from a big-picture point of view.
Often, designers mistakenly believe that the roof area–not the budget–will be the main constraint in a project. Or designers may focus on a client’s energy demand.
During the Megawatt Design course, students will learn all about optimizing projects, among other issues.
They will have the opportunity to run optimization exercises in some premier online design software platforms (Helioscope and PVSketch), with extended free trails that are included with the class. They will also have a chance to demonstrate their skills with more detailed aspects of design as part of the capstone project.
Capstone Projects to Showcase Plan Sets
As part of the capstone project, students will demonstrate the knowledge they learned about the more detailed and nuanced aspects of preparing plan sets for permit submittal and construction.
“We cover things like plan set structure and how to organize and present information in construction drawings, as well as what makes for good details, sheet notes and project documentation,” he says.
Well developed plan sets help ensure projects get permitted and built faster, that things run smoothly during construction, and that the installations meet the design intent.
Students who take this course should have some experience of PV design.
“This is not solar 101,” says Batchelor. However, with the appropriate background and Megawatt Design under your belt, you’ll have the tools to design bigger solar projects more quickly, get more MW on the ground and help fight climate change.
Instructor Ryan Mayfield is president of the consulting firm Renewable Energy Associates, and has been working in the renewable energy field since 1999. He is Photovoltaic Systems Technical Editor for SolarPro Magazine, regularly writing feature articles in SolarPro and Home Power magazines, and wrote “PV Design and Installation for Dummies.” He is an Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association (OSEIA) board member.
Batchelor’s experience designing and building projects ranges from small off-grid power systems to utility-scale plants connected at medium voltage. As a professional in the solar industry since 2006, he has been involved in the construction of hundreds of PV systems and has designed dozens of projects in the 500-kW to 5-MW range. Batchelor recently founded Sol Rebel, an Engineering and Consulting firm. www.SolRebel.com