The commercial-scale solar market can be competitive, but finding a niche sets companies on a fast path to success. One Top Solar Contractor spent years honing the skills to specialize in the growing sector of school solar systems.
Sunrise Power Solutions (No. 93 on the 2022 Top Solar Contractors List) had experience working with schools as an electrical contractor, so when the company added solar services to its toolbelt about 12 years ago, it already had an advantage.
At that time, many school districts were obtaining grants to procure small, 10-kW systems that served as science experiments for students. Sunrise didn’t balk at these minuscule projects, instead seeing them as opportunities.
“After doing a few of those, then it got bigger and bigger each year to the point where we are right now,” said Stephen Foley, director of business development at Sunrise.
Now, the company calls itself the largest installer of school solar in New York. However, these solar projects are much different from other commercial-scale projects, starting with the sales process.
“It’s a lot more complicated than for any other solar installation. When you’re dealing with the school district, there are many, many stakeholders,” Foley said.
Instead of working with a few business leaders like in other C&I-scale projects, school solar installations require buy-in from numerous officials — as well as the general public if the project requires taxpayer funding. Permitting can also be more complex, since companies must get permission from the New York State Education Department to do any work on a school building.
“It’s not something that just anybody can jump into and do because of that,” Foley said. “It literally takes years to do, from the time you start initially developing a project to going through the whole approval process.”
When Sunrise is working with a new school, Foley first speaks with the superintendent of the district and other assistant administrators. His master’s degree in educational leadership and certification as a school business official makes this part easier.
“The other administrators, we speak the same language,” he said. “It’s not like I’m coming in as a solar salesman, I’m coming in as a colleague.”
But the administration isn’t the end of the line. The school board must be engaged in the process too.
“If the administration thinks it’s a great idea, they can’t just go ahead and do something on their own, they have to present it to their school board and the school board has to vote on it,” Foley said.
Sunrise often helps prepare presentations on solar projects for school board meetings and is available to answer questions from the board or the public.
In Foley’s experience, school board members are hesitant to vote in favor of something that costs taxpayer money and seems risky to them. For that reason, energy service performance contracts (ESPCs) have become crucial to growing school solar. ESPCs are comprehensive contracts between an energy service company (ESCO) and a facility owner. ESCOs will audit the energy of the entire school and then procure efficiency measures like LED lighting and solar installations under a single contract.
These contracts are often financed through existing school maintenance budgets or bonds, and they always include performance guarantees. If a solar project underperforms, that ESCO will pay the difference out of pocket.
Foley said most schools these days are procuring solar installations through ESPCs. Other schools may have access to municipal grants or rebates.
“We use all those factors to help make it more affordable for schools to put the solar on. We’re always looking for opportunities,” he said.
Once a school finds the funding and decides to go solar, the challenges don’t end. Prioritizing the children’s safety and working around school schedules makes construction more complicated.
“We’ve had years of experience of working in the schools, we know how important it is to work with proper etiquette. It’s not a typical construction job environment,” Foley said. “You have to have a project manager who’s in touch with the facilities director of the school district and is in tune with everything that’s going on.”
When the installers are ready to tie the solar project into the grid, they sometimes have to turn off power to the whole school. That means they must carefully plan for a time when class isn’t in session and no after-school activities are taking place.
Another common roadblock for school solar involves the project logistics. School roofs are often old and may not be deemed structurally capable of holding ballast blocks and solar panels. Sunrise has learned to be creative in those situations, offering custom carport designs instead.
“We can take a look at parking lots or even field areas where we can put in a ground-mount or a canopy system over walkways,” he said.
Although the extra work required in all stages of school solar installations can be overwhelming, dedication to this growing sector has paid off for Sunrise Power Solutions.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2022 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.