To be a solar installer in Iowa, you have to have a real passion for what you’re doing. The customers aren’t lining up as quickly as they do on the coasts, mainly because electricity prices are low in the Midwest. The prime customer base is the agriculture market (one in five Iowans work in ag), but many farmers don’t have the cash to invest in solar. Energy Consultants Group (No. 334 on the 2016 Top Solar Contractors list) adds another wrinkle of complexity by preferring a more expensive and underappreciated installation—ACPV.
“It costs a little bit more, but you’re not buying price. You’re buying power,” said Jason Gideon, president of Energy Consultants Group (ECG). “The whole point is to get a solar system that’s going to produce a ton of energy.”
Even with the apparent setbacks, ECG is growing. Educating consumers through seminars and home shows, Gideon said most of the company’s business comes from referrals, and ACPV is supported in the community. AC modules come with inverters already attached. Installers like ACPV because its quicker to install than typical DC-based systems, and they’re safer electric-wise for the end-customer.
“With ACPV, you take it right from the crate, right onto the racking, plug and play—it’s a done deal,” Gideon said. “We don’t have to mess around with anything; everything’s been tested at the factory. It’s a full 25-year warranty on it. It makes more sense.”
ECG was a big supporter of SolarBridge and used its product on almost all of its early ACPV projects. Now with SolarBridge under the SunPower umbrella, Gideon said he’s been searching for a comparable alternative, but ACPV isn’t especially popular among manufacturers.
“AC is a bit tough; there are not a whole lot of people manufacturing them,” he said. “The inspectors love it, customers seem to love it because of the safety factor, there are no exposed DC wires—the list goes on. I don’t know why more manufacturers aren’t jumping on it. Either you’re a panel manufacturer or you’re an inverter manufacturer, and that’s the problem.”
ECG installed Iowa’s largest ACPV project last year—a 30-kW ground-mount. Gideon has long had his eye on building the country’s largest ACPV system, a record he believes is currently held by Harvard Business School in Boston, which has an 80-kW array. He’s ready to take the top prize now with a 145-kW roof-mount ACPV project in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which should be completed before the end of the summer. Gideon said the project went through many designs—including DC arrays with power optimizers—but the building owner chose to go with ACPV. Which type of system the company installs is ultimately up to the customer, but Gideon is glad ACPV has caught on.
“We’re not trying to put in a million systems. We’re a more high-quality outfit,” Gideon said. “Some customers want the cheapest of the cheapest, and that’s really not a good fit for us. These systems are going to be around for three or four decades. It makes no sense to use cheap stuff because it’s going to have to last a long time. We want to use equipment that we know is proven, it’s going to work, we can stand behind it. Almost 90% of our systems installed in the last five years have been ACPV. I just believe in the technology.”