It seems as though energy storage has moved from being an “industry buzzword” into something to finally seriously consider. The technology is there, and utilities are taking notice. And while dedicated residential solar installers might have some experience with a battery or two, most C&I and utility-scale installers have never dealt with large energy storage systems. With the way the industry is going, is it time for solar contractors to add a new service to their installation repertoire?
For most larger developers and installers, the answer is yes, and it’s better to get involved now instead of getting left in the dust. One can go the route of partnering with an established energy storage provider, as California’s REC Solar recently did, or starting an in-house storage division, as Swinerton Renewable Energy has done. This is the tale of two companies trying to take advantage of new opportunities.
When REC Solar started exploring energy storage installation plans, it wasn’t because of market desperation. Instead, the company wanted to provide its commercial customers with the best options.
“I think we could be successful without energy storage. There is still a big market out there for solar, and storage just doesn’t make a lot of sense for [everyone],” said REC’s John Hostetter, senior director of product management. “But this allows us to be more successful than we are. There are customers where this is a great opportunity for them.”
Hostetter said REC Solar first started the search for a storage partner five years ago, but the maturation of the market just wasn’t there. This past year, the market seemed to finally catch up.
“More and more customers are talking about it and requesting it,” Hostetter said. “In a couple years, it’s going to be a major part of the market. If we don’t get ahead of that game, we’re going to miss out.”
In 2015, utility Duke Energy secured a majority stake in REC Solar and brought the commercial solar installer into an exclusive alliance, alongside energy storage provider Green Charge. REC Solar and Green Charge now work collaboratively on solar+storage sales, addressing customer needs on a holistic level.
“Green Charge allows us to have discussions that go beyond just solar projects,” said Garrett Colburn, director of marketing communications and demand generation at REC Solar. “There’s a natural alignment when you form the right alliances. You have similar customers.”
REC Solar and Green Charge don’t work together to bundle solar+storage packages. Not all buyers want cookie-cutter options. It’s better to provide them with more options than just a few one-size-fits-all.
“We didn’t go the route of creating our own offering because people don’t want to be told that the one thing we have in our bag is the one thing they need,” Colburn said. “We have this eco-system enabled through Duke. We’re able to at least have the discussion if that makes sense for the customer.”
In November, the two companies announced a plan to build the largest commercial solar+storage project in Sonoma County, California. The 1-MW system will serve a mixed-use development, including shops and apartments, on a 200-acre campus. The savings and returns on a solar+storage system rather than either a standalone solar or standalone storage system really piqued the development’s interest.
“It’s what differentiates ourselves—positioning ourselves as [having] the scale and the ability to have that larger energy discussion,” Colburn said. “They like to know we’re a serious player that is thinking at that level early on. They want someone who can think long term, into that 30-year schedule.”
Entering into energy storage offerings really came down to providing the best customer service for REC Solar.
“We like to educate ourselves on what the customer’s needs and wants are and then educate the customer on their options and make a recommendation based on their needs and wants, not necessarily just to push an option that we have,” Hostetter said.
Utility-scale solar EPC Swinerton Renewable Energy knew it wanted to get involved with storage in a big way once 2017 rolled around. The uncertainty around the ITC extension in 2015 only helped fuel that urgency.
“We saw the trends in the market that 2017 was going to be challenged in utility-scale, with or without the extension of the ITC,” said George Hershman, Swinerton’s senior vice president and general manager. “We knew that in late 2016 we would need to start putting active pieces in motion so in 2017 we could be in a number of different markets that would support the scale of the organization and fill in what was going to be some downturn in the utility market.”
Luckily for the company, the opportunity came about in late 2016 to assist on an 80-MWh storage project for Southern California Edison—currently the largest lithium-ion battery storage project in the world. A project of that size clearly gives Swinerton a strong résumé to work with.
“Our first storage project is a significant project in the storage market,” Hershman said. “We see it as an opportunity to grow our strength and resources. We didn’t want to be just a utility-scale solar contractor. It was a good short-term play but not a good long-term play.”
The company will now search out large-scale energy storage projects, especially in the active California market.
“We believe the California market is going to support large-scale storage because of the significant concentration of solar,” Hershman said. “We see our developer clients that are doing traditional solar or wind looking at standalone storage projects. We have a client base that is looking at this as an alternate development opportunity. It’s natural for us to support them directly.”
Rather than partnering with a specific storage technology, Swinerton has chosen to ride the waves of innovation.
“We have stayed technology agnostic in the solar space, and we believe that has served us well,” Hershman said. “We are able to provide the best product offering for any project, because we have a vast array of suppliers and manufacturers that we have relationships with. We look at storage the same way. We don’t know who the winners or losers on technology are going to be. The marketplace will determine the best technology.”
Swinerton really saw getting involved with storage as a necessary key to survival in the utility-scale market.
“We are a 130-year-old construction company that has evolved over time as markets change. We always look at how we can continue to build a sustainable business model,” Hershman said. “Not in every market will storage be adopted, at least initially. [But] solar+storage is becoming at least an item that utilities and owners are looking at. Having a storage résumé is an important differentiator we saw in this growing trend.”