As the solar industry continues to grow and enter new markets and regions, the companies selling and installing solar systems are responsible for addressing changing client challenges and keeping pace with new technology. Installers are taking on whole new services related to accessory technologies, system upkeep and worksite preparation as they determine what will be necessary to offer solar customers in the evolving market.
So, how should a solar company decide when it’s time to break into a new service? Eric Domescik, co-founder and president of Renewvia Energy, an Atlanta, Georgia-based solar installer, knew it was time when he and his employees were overextending to meet operations and maintenance (O&M) calls.
The company has been in business for a decade. While Domescik originally added O&M calls to his pile of daily responsibilities, he felt the need wasn’t being properly addressed. In any sales-related field, maintaining relationships is important and can result in referrals for future business.
“That’s why we organically had to grow, just to meet the demands of what we already had accomplished,” Domescik said.
To better serve clients, Renewvia added an O&M service that it offers to existing customers and those outside its network. The key to the new service was hiring a dedicated O&M program director to answer those calls.
Renewvia handles O&M with an in-house team led by program director John Thornburg, mostly in Southeast states, or what Domescik referred to as the company’s backyard. It subcontracts O&M to technicians in states outside of Renewvia’s proximity. But if there is enough demand in a certain territory, Renewvia will consider hiring an O&M technician for that region.
Integrating a new service can require involvement from existing teams at a company. In Renewvia’s case, the construction crew is talking to clients about O&M options and passing those newly installed projects to the O&M team.
“To add an O&M service, it is definitely a commitment that everybody in the company has to buy into,” Domescik said. “You are making bold claims that you’re going to respond within a certain amount of time and you’re going to have the wherewithal and the resources to perform the work that you promised.”
Adding a new service to a company can also mean workspace expansion. Building or leasing a new space is an investment that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but if services continue to grow, then the company’s footprint can grow, too. Miami, Florida-based turnkey solar company Origis Energy decided to build a new facility to accommodate a new solar service.
Solar O&M was offered from the start at Origis, but the company wanted to tap potential third-party clients. In 2019, it created Origis Services, a separate branch of the company that’s strictly focused on O&M. The company built a 10,000-sq.-ft facility called the Remote Operating Center (ROC) in Austin, Texas, that dispatches O&M technicians to a multi-gigawatt portfolio of solar projects across the country. The ROC is outfitted with project monitoring software and is dedicated entirely to Origis Services’ operations.
“I think it’s just a process of evolution and growth,” said Glenna Wiseman, public marketing lead for Origis. “The team always had what it needed in Miami, but the portfolio was growing and we’re moving forward. We’re seeing the need for this type of approach. It wasn’t: ‘This wasn’t working over here.’ It was: ‘We’re getting bigger, and we need more room.’”
Like Renewvia, the key to Origis handing off and kickstarting the service was hiring the right person. Michael Eyman, managing director of Origis Services, spent 21 years in the U.S. Navy Reserve doing maintenance work on remote field operations and held O&M positions at MaxGen and SunPower.
Hiring the staff necessary to do the work is also crucial. Origis employs 70 personnel in the ROC and another 500 O&M technicians across the country. Eyman said Origis brings senior technicians to solar sites and hires new technicians from communities to service those arrays.
“The biggest challenge we have is the labor market, which is why we really fall back on hiring people that want a career,” he said. “Give them the training, give them longevity and since we have a long trajectory, we’re able to give those people more opportunities and really have a long-term career. We see ourselves as leaders in those communities.”
Adding services beyond the solar array
Sometimes a solar market can demand a service entirely outside of typical solar expertise. While a residential rooftop is a familiar place for solar installations, it isn’t common for solar installers to also offer an in-house roofing service.
Palomar Solar & Roofing of Escondido, California, added a roofing division about three years ago after it found many customers required roof work before the solar installation.
“We really didn’t want to start a roofing company, but it seemed like we were consistently running into people who needed roofs,” said Adam Rizzo, business development partner at Palomar.
To make the roofing addition as easy as possible, Palomar sought an existing operation to join the team. George Cortes had been a roofer in the area for more than 20 years. He had existing crews and handled a lot of the day-to-day operations of his roofing business himself. Palomar brought Cortes and his crews on, gave them new work vehicles and took over the business side of operations, like payroll and bidding jobs.
“If we didn’t find George, I don’t know if we’d be having this success that we’re having, because it would have been a lot more headaches trying to set it all up,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got a well-educated sales team who understands how to sell it, and now George just has to worry about coordinating installs.”
Before adding a roofing service, Palomar often encountered solar installs that would void a customer’s roof warranty. With in-house roofing, the company can now offer warranties on both the roof and the solar installation and meet that particular need in sales conversations.
Subcontracting roofers and coordinating their schedules with Palomar’s installers used to be a hassle too. Now, Palomar’s roofing division will prepare the roof, the solar installers will build the array and the roofers will return to frame the roof.
“You just have to go into it just how we did with solar,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to make it work no matter what. We believe this is the right thing to offer customers for their peace of mind and you just have to be willing to roll with the punches.”
Solar companies will continue to evolve along with the market to meet the needs of their customers. Service expansion is possible through proper planning, making deliberate hires and, if required, expanding a company’s footprint.