Many types of companies install solar systems. The primary industry begins with solar contractors, and then branches out to electrical contractors and plumbing contractors. General contractors and roofing contractors are also involved in solar installations. Because solar PV is electrical and solar hot water is plumbing-related, the industry sees a lot of participation from plumbing and electrical contractors.
Solar contractors operate independently or in conjunction with other contractors, such as roofers. Every project is different, so who is involved depends on the size and scope of a project. A typical solar contractor can handle a small residential system from start to finish. A large utility-scale project may involve coordinating with a roofing manufacturer or general contractor.
The first step to any installation project is engineering, followed by permitting and procurement. Once the materials arrive, companies install the mounting system, the solar modules and the inverters, in that order. After the system is installed, it is inspected to ensure it meets local code. Finally, companies often train customers on how to monitor and maintain a system.
When one company installed a 1,200-panel solar array at the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, the company first electrically and structurally engineered the project, taking into account factors such as soil conditions and wind loading. Next, the company procured materials, including custom screws to penetrate the dense shell and rock ground. Then it installed the ground screws. Racks that hold the modules were mounted onto the screws and then panels were mounted to the racks.
The company connected and combined all of the wires and led them to the inverter, which was on a special concrete pad. The inverter allows the electricity to flow to the grid. After the system was inspected and commissioned, the company trained the client to read the monitoring system to see how much power the panels are producing, how much money they are saving and the environmental benefits.
Companies in this sector employ many electricians, but also plumbers, roofers and general construction labor. Given that every project has unique characteristics, every project requires a slightly different skill set. For photovoltaic, the main skill set is electrical. For larger scale projects, a need for steel or concrete professionals or roofers may present itself.
According to one company, the biggest challenge in the solar industry is the lack of meaningful long-term energy policy. But for installers in particular, safety procedures and licensing are important. Companies must follow code and meet OSHA guidelines. Many companies also feel strongly about the need for proper training. One even formed its own licensed training institute, which shares best practices with installers across the country.
The marketplace for installers is expanding in a few key areas. Residential systems have been on the rise because the general public is adopting solar faster than other sectors. There is also increased interest from governments to install solar PV and hot water units on municipal buildings. And the Army Energy Initiative’s Task Force created plans to install 1,000 MW by 2016.
Contracting opportunities with large commercial businesses are expanding as well. Many earth-conscious companies view it as a part of their mission to generate clean energy. For instance, Ikea announced they are going 100% renewable. In Mexico, strong federal policy is driving installations both within government and the private sector. OMA, a publicly traded airport management services company, is looking to install dozens of solar systems across Mexico.
By: Rick Gilbert, Vice President at Solar Source