Building performance, energy audit, energy services, weatherization, air sealing, performance contracting

The Future of Comfort. How the World Cup Might Help Your Help Your HVAC Business.

How did Qatar win their bid to host the 2022 World Cup?  In this video, Wolfgang Kessling explains how his team designed a comfort strategy that helped make it happen.  Yes, comfort.

Here’s why I wanted to share this video with HeatSpring readers:

Comfort is a word I hear HVAC and geothermal contractors use all the time, but […]

Finance 101 for Renewable Energy Professionals

Understanding finance is required to sell renewable energy projects. It’s needed to communicate the value of both residential and commercial projects, and for all types of technologies: solar PV, solar hot water, and geothermal heat pumps.
The reason financial metrics are important is that all of these technologies are financial investments.  Thus, you must be able to communicate the financial value of the system to the client and ‘payback period’ does not do this. I repeat, don’t use ‘payback period’, and we’ll talk about why later.

The key to understanding financial analysis is a small contradiction. The actual financial calculations are not difficult once you have all the numbers. The challenging aspect of financial analysis is that many of the numbers the model depends on are assumptions and projections — things you can’t always nail down. Thus, it’s important to perform sensitivity analysis to see how a few critical variables will impact a project’s returns.

Another challenge is communicating exactly what these numbers mean to a consumer, so they understand it. In order to do this, you need to understand what each term represents and how to explain it in plain language.

I’ve noticed that the information and educational resources on basic financial analysis for the renewable energy industry is lacking. While many PV installers can derate conductors easily, they may not know what the NPV of an array is.  Most geothermal contractors can size of a heat pump, but few know that the typical IRR of a system is when it’s replacing an oil boiler. We need to change this.
Let’s Start With the Basic Terms
Below are the basic financial terms you will need to understand to perform financial analysis on any renewable energy project. I’m simply going to discuss what each variable is and how to calculate it, with an example from excel. At the bottom of the article you’ll be able to download the excel file, so you can play with it yourself.

It’s critical to remember that the variables that impact these metrics will change based upon technology and incentives, but the underlying cash flows that create the financial returns will remain the same. NPV is NPV.

Here are the terms will will discuss

Net Present Value (NPV)
Present Value
Future Value
Discount Rate
Internal Rate of Return (IRR)
Sensitivity Analysis

Net Present Value (NPV)
NPV is the most recognized metric used to analyze capital projects. NPV takes every known cash flow in a period, negative and positive, and discounts back to today to see if the project is profitable or not.  If a profit has a negative NPV, it should not be completed. If it’s zero, it doesn’t matter if a project is completed or not, from a pure financial perspective. If it’s positive, all else equal, it means the project should be completed.

Unlike ‘payback period’, NPV provides a specific dollar amount that you can use to determine if a project is profitable or not. HOWEVER, NPV analysis can vary widely because it is extremely dependent on the discount rate used. On residential sales in particular, an acceptable discount rate can change greatly depending on the customer.

The analysis can also vary widely due to the confidence one has in the financial assumptions used to create the model. It is key to perform a sensitivity analysis when performing NPV analysis because most times the cash values being used are projections and it cannot be said with 100% confidence the numbers will be exact.

The equation to calculate NPV is to add together the present values of each cash flow for each period for a project. Here is the formula to calculate present value for a single period.
Present Value = Net Cash Flow / (1 + i)^t

i = discount rate

t = time period.

**Note, I’m using “^” meaning to the power of X, or in replacement of a supercript because our publishing software does not allow superscript. This is also the same script that excel will use if you want to raise a integer to a power of X**
If we had 5 periods, we could calculate the present value for each period, then add those numbers together.

What is the net present value of $500 investment, with 5 unequal cash flows, 50, 200, 200, 300, and 300 at a 5% discount rate?

Figure 1: Adding together the present values of 5 future cash flows to determine NPV

A few notes: The cell in C13 is simply summing the values of C6:C11. Each of the values in C6:C11 is calculating the present value of a single cash flow. Notice how $200 in 2 years, is worth more then $200 in year 3? This is because it’s getting discounted by 5% every year.
Present Value (PV):
Present value is the present value, today, of a future cash amount discounted back to today. Net present value is thus, a series of cash flows all discounted back to today’s terms. For example, what is $50 worth today? It’s worth $50. However, if you wanted to find out what $100 in 5 years would be worth today at a 5% interest rate, you’d need to calculate the present value. Here is the equation.

The equation to find present value of a future cash flow is:

PV = FV / (1 + i) ^ n

i = interest rate

n = number of period.

So, what is the present value of $100 payment in 5 years at a discount rate of 5%

PV = $100 / (1 + .05) ^ 5

PV = $100 / 1.28

PV = $78.15

This means that is someone gave you $100 in 5 years, and you have a bank account with a yield of 5%, it would have been the same value of money if they would have given you $78.15 today and you put the money into the bank for 5 years.
Future Value: (FV)
The future value is asking what the future value is of a present day cash amount, given it is accumulating at a specific interest rate. The best way of describing future value is a typical savings accounts.

If you put $50 dollars into a savings account with a 5% interest rate and take it out in 10 years, how much will it be worth?

The equation to calculate future value is

FV = PV (1+i)^n.

FV = the value of a future cash flow today, given x % interest rate.

PV = the present value of the investment

i = the interest rate of the investment

n = number of periods of the investment

FV = $50 (1+.05) ^ 10

(1.05)^10 = 1.63

$50 * 1.63 = $81.44

In other words, $50 today at 5% interest is EQUAL TO be given $81.44 in 10 years

How about a 10% interest rate?

FV = $50 (1 + .10) ^10

FV = $129.69

As you can see, the interest rate used over the term has a huge impact on the value of the investment.
Discount Rate / Interest Rate:
In the calculations of NPV, PV, and FV, you’ve noticed that we’ve been using an interest rate to calculate the value of money in different parts of time. This value is called the discount rate. Sometimes, it’s referred to as the interest rate (for future value), or minimal attractive rate of return (MARR), which we’ll discuss below.

The discount rate can be somewhat confusing to some. There are critical pieces to understand about the discount rate. First, what it does. Second, how you determine it.

In the above examples of calculating PV and FV you noticed I used an interest rate to calculate the value of cash between a certain  period in time and another period in time. So, to define it very simply the discount rate is an interest rate that is the difference between a present value and future value of the same dollar amount. The difference between $100 today and in five years is the discount rate.

How one should select the discount rate is a little more difficult. Many times the discount rate is selected based on a few characteristics. None of these is wrong, it simply depends on the circumstances.

A comparable investment or savings rate. If a homeowner could invest the same money in a CD at risk free interest rate of 5.6%, they will likely use 5.6% as a discount rate for other investments. Also, keep in mind that many times a homeowner might add a few percentage points to a different investment that is not risk free to cover the additional risk.
The inflation rate. If I had $100 in cash and stuffed it in a safe (a place that is not getting interest), and took it out in 5 years, it would have lower purchasing power. To understand how the purchasing power changes, we would calculate the FV of $100 in 5 years with the discount rate being the expected rate of inflation.
Risk tolerance. The more risky the investment, the higher discount rate you’d need to satisfy the level or risk. Having a higher discount rate will decrease the time it takes for you re-coup your investment, given the NPV is still positive. When risk tolerance is being used to determine need returns, it’s sometimes referred to as “Minimum Attractive Rate of Return” (MARR), or the “hurdle rate”.

The thing to remember about discount rate is that while it’s use in the financial analysis is extremely clear, determining what exactly to use as a discount rate is extremely subjective or will vary widely between homeowners.

The impact of a different discount rate can be huge when talking about renewable energy projects because an acceptable discount rate between different homeowners can vary widely. Let’s walk through some examples to demonstrate.

CASE STUDY: A Sample Solar Hot Water Customer in Greenfield, MA.

Net Installed Cost After Incentives: $4,000
Displaced Oil : 130 Gallons with 3 Full Time Occupants
Value of Displaced Oil @ 3.00 Gallon = $390
The life of the system will be 20 years.
Maintenance costs are $200 at year 10.
All other equipment failures will be paid by the manufacturer

Here’s the T*Sol estimation for the system production and load. 


How to Select the Most Profitable Projects (and clients) for Your Business

In the last post, we discussed “the sales equation” that every solar company should maximize. As a reminder, here is the equation (Note, for this article the questions are applicable to both solar and geothermal companies):

“The Sales Equation” = High Gross Margin * Project Closes Quickly / Marketing Dollars Spent

There are 3 variables to the equation, two of them have to do with your marketing activities. Specifically, selecting the right customers. You can influence how fast projects close and spending the least marketing dollars by selecting the correct customers. Yes, you heard correctly, all customers are not created equal. Money is not money. High gross margins on a project and marketing dollars spent on a lead have a large overlap. The jobs with the highest margin are likely the ones that are managed the best from an operations perspective. Well run jobs are also the ones that tends to lead to the most referrals, and these are the cheapest leads.

In a future post we will discuss strategies on the best ways to create referral business from a project. For now, back to selecting the right customers. You need to find leads that are the cheapest, and that will close the fastest. These are highly qualified leads.

What does a highly qualified lead look like? These will apply to both solar and geothermal projects. They can take many forms, but it’s likely they’ll meet many of the following criteria:


The Entrepreneur vs General Contractor. Who Will Win the Clean Energy Race?

There’s an interesting split in the residential and light commercial clean energy space lately. As consumer demand is surging and some “old” solar pv players are moving to bigger projects (Nexamp no longer does residential and is installing 4.5 MW in Western, MA, Borrego sold their residential business, etc) there is room opening up for smaller, new companies.

I’ve personally noticed a major divide between the types of organizations expanding into the industry to meet the demand. There tends to be two major camps. First, the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur sees the huge industry growth and is starting a new company to take advantage the growth. The entrepreneur will tend to focus on a specific technology; solar pv, solar thermal, geothermal or energy efficiency. The second is the general contractor or construction professional who plans to expand his current business into a new technology. He does this for a few reasons. He has existing customers asking him about these new technology and he already knows 80% of what he needs to know to install these systems.

Each of these groups looks at the industry in a different way. Each has its pros and cons.

The Entrepreneur or “Pure Play”

I call it a pure play as the whole business is typically hinged solely on the sales of projects in a specific technology.

The pure play company tends to see  “understanding business”. That is, the connection and optimization of marketing, sales, engineering, and installation activities as a skill in it’s own right, and they believe the reason they’ll success with the new company.

The General Contractor

The general contractor tends to already own an existing business focused on the building industry. This tends to be general contracting or a as a sub-contractor; roofer, plumber, electrician, etc. The general contractor tends to want to continue their existing business while taking their existing trade knowledge into a new field. The general contractor is already well versed in all of the aspects needed to complete a project;  design, installation, project management and customer manager and this is why they feel they will be successful in a new industry.

What are the pros and cons of each?

I don’t personally feel either is better suited to take advantage of the opportunity in the huge growth of renewable energy, though I do think they will find themselves in different places in the market and supply chain, simply because of how each group values marketing, sales, and the installation side of the business.


How to Use Lean Startup Methods in Renewable Energy to Increase Profits

In the last few posts I’ve written about the process of expanding an existing construction company into renewable energy business and the single thing our marketing planwill focus on. If you’re new to the solar industry, go to the Solar 101 Reading list. It has free tools and articles on solar design and installation, sales and marketing, policy, finance and best practices.

The main metric I’m using is “profit per time invested”. I’m not as interested in increasing top line growth rather then profitability, especially as we get stared. My goal is to reach a profitability of 20% pre-tax. This seems very “doable” given the general construction industry has a profit margin of around 10%. How does this number impact the scale of the business? I can live well with a business that sells $500k a year in revenue providing me with $100k in profit. That is not a lot. This is a little under $48k revenue per month. That is 2 solar pv or geothermal jobs per month, equally 24 jobs a year. Or 4 to 5 solar thermal jobs per month or a combination of solar pv, geothermal and solar thermal. Very “doable”, especially if you look at the number of jobs that companies are doing and the small profit they’re making. From a marketing perspective, the key will be to understand what really is the cause of these jobs so that we can make sure the revenue will be stable and predictable. Most companies take jobs as they come and think its because of something they’ve done. When revenue decline they’re end up in the dark.

Many people  like to think big, going after larger and larger projects and getting into commercial work. Often times, they do this by suffering through slimmer and slimmer margins while having to deal with more and more headaches. I’m into thinking big, but by big, I think of net profit. Basically, I’d like to focus more on efficiency then growth of absolutely numbers. A company making 20% margin on $500k in revenue makes the same money as a company with a 5% margin and $2 MILLION in revenue. I’d argue it’s easier to increase efficiency then to grow revenue because you have more control over your own operations then the decisions of clients.

I’m a huge believe in the “crawl –> walk –> run” philosophy of business development and that’s why I spent the last two posts discussing my entire marketing strategy, the goals and metrics of each business task. Now I’m going to outline the operational strategy.

In order to run a super efficient service based business (all construction companies are service based) there are two critical components that need to be optimized. First, your marketing and sales and second the design and installation. On the marketing and sales side this mean decreasing the number of leads you’re getting but making sure that more of them close. Again, you’re goal should to be getting 5 to 10 leads month and have a 50% close rate, rather then sifting through and doing site visits on 50 leads, only to have 3% close. Remember this, dealing with leads takes time and is expensive.

Enough about marketing, for this article let’s focus on operation of running the business.

Many people have been looking for a connection between clean energy and technology for some time now and there aren’t many, other then the goal of “world-changing” technology. However, I believe I’ve found a similarity that can be used to increase operational profitability of small clean energy companies. In tech startups, there tends to be two teams of people. One group is focused on the customer and the other on developing the product. Here’s the reason for this. In most new tech companies, not only does the team not know exactly what the product will be, but they don’t know who the exact customer will be either. So, the customer development team is always performing tests with the product to determine who the customer is and what they will pay for the product. While the product development team is tweaking the product to see if a certain customer will pay for it. I’m not a tech guy, so I might have missed a few things. But to my understand these are called Lean Startup principles.

We can apply a similar model to the sales/marketing and operations activities within a small clean energy company. NOT that the sales/marketing team don’t know who the customer is and the operations team doesn’t know what the product should be. In clean energy both of these variables are known. The logic applies to how the teams are organized so that it a has a huge impact on their effectiveness and the profitability of the company. To display this, let’s review how the “traditional” organization structure of most construction companies is focused.