North Carolina’s quick ascension to the No. 2 spot on the national solar capacity list (second only to California) can be attributed to strong regulatory support, state policies and a bump from a local solar installer.
Strata Solar started in 2008 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as a solar thermal rooftop installer. After gaining some PV experience in the C&I market, Strata Solar “cracked the code” on utility-scale solar and really pushed North Carolina into a leadership position, installing its first large project in 2011 and surpassing 50 MW the next year just inside the state. Today, the company has developed and built around 1.5 GW of solar projects nationally, first expanding outside North Carolina in 2013. Strata is also involved with post-construction roles and has an O&M portfolio of over 2 GW.
“After building our chops in the utility-scale space in North Carolina, we’ve probably developed and built, in terms of number of projects, more than almost anyone in the country,” said Brian O’Hara, senior vice president of strategy and government affairs for Strata Solar.
The company still works in the C&I market, but large-scale installs have skyrocketed the firm to national recognition. With such an extensive history in utility-scale development, Strata only recently began installing tracking systems over fixed-tilt systems.
“We do single-axis trackers wherever we can,” O’Hara said. “That’s a reasonably recent change for us. Most of our older projects were fixed-tilt because the economics were better. With the cost of the tracker systems down, they’re competitive enough where the extra energy output from a tracker system more than offsets the incremental cost of the tracker versus the fixed-tilt.”
Pricing concerns are a big part of large-scale solar development. The recent 30% tariffs on solar panels have made developing competitive solar projects difficult for Strata.
“There are projects that would have been economic without the tariffs that are no longer economic. We’re building less solar than we would have and employing less people than we would have without the tariffs,” O’Hara said. “But they’re not at the level where it’s slowing us and stopping us by any means. We still see tremendous growth opportunities in solar. It’s a speedbump in the road for the solar industry but it’s certainly not going to stop us.”
Since business is still continuing full-speed across the country, Strata often uses job fairs to find skilled local labor with a preference for military veterans.
“We find that military veterans are an excellent worker resource for us,” O’Hara said. “They are disciplined, they’re used to working outside in difficult conditions, they have experience oftentimes with military maintenance programs that can help us on the construction and O&M side.”
Strata Solar performs O&M for its own projects and about 1 GW of third-party projects. The third-party portfolio has provided Strata with access to a wide range of solar products it normally doesn’t install itself. This gives Strata well-rounded O&M knowledge, but O’Hara said the company is still trying to find the right balance between technology and hands-on tasks.
“We certainly employ remote monitoring and sensors and drones to diagnose problems and issues without having to roll a truck out,” he said. “But we’ve also tried to focus on having our own O&M technicians have a deep understanding of how energy and power grids work. We’ve been approached in the past by asset owners whose previous O&M provider had a really flashy dashboard and remote monitoring, but when issues would come up, they didn’t have the expertise in-house to really diagnose those issues. We’ve tried to balance those two things, both technology from monitoring and people with the right skillsets.”
Looking at all sides of every project has naturally led Strata Solar into energy storage. The company was recently put on the shortlist of an all-source RFP in the Southwest for a solar+storage project, competing against natural gas peaker plant designs. The quickly falling cost of energy storage systems will open up the solar market even more, O’Hara said.
“It becomes a lot easier to integrate new solar PV when you have storage there to provide grid services,” he said. “Battery storage prices [are] falling fast. They’re falling faster than solar PV did, and no one predicted how fast [panel prices] were going to fall. It’s going to be an interesting market over the next several years as we see storage really start to open up the possibilities for what renewables can do.”
Strata Solar has really established itself as a confident player in the large-scale market, and O’Hara said the company wants to continue to build on that.
“We’re going to continue to focus on being a trusted partner for some of our customers, like utilities that we’ve worked with,” he said. “Being a partner that can deliver everything from the development through to the EPC and out to the O&M, being a one-stop shop really allows us to be that trusted partner.”