Specialty Solar Shines: Niche Installations Offer Solar Contractors Better Opportunities Amid Stiff Competition

Credit: Shutterstock / Federico Rostagno

While solar power becomes more common and less complicated to install, some contractors have found a niche in specialty installations that require more expertise and adaptability. These projects offer opportunity for skilled contractors who struggle to compete for low-margin solar work.

Contractors are signing more and larger solar-power installation contracts than ever before, but they come with an economy of scale, said Christopher Smith, CEO of Paradigm Power and Planning and alternative-energy engineer at NECA/IBEW for green building projects.

Solar power is still growing. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA) 2017 “Solar Means Business Report” on commercial solar installations in the United States, businesses installed 325 megawatts of solar in 2017.

The SEIA also reported companies, such as Amazon and Microsoft, are increasingly installing solar power systems in large, off-site facilities, which helps them reduce their carbon footprint.

Target is leading the way for U.S.-based businesses. Already, 436 of the retailer’s locations have rooftop solar-power systems, each of which could produce up to one-third of a location’s electricity needs. The company plans to have more than 500 solar-powered locations by 2020.

However, these large-scale deployments are not the only, or even the best, solar work opportunity for experienced contractors. In fact, some companies are finding a variety of other applications and purposes for solar that makes custom-designed work necessary. Today, Smith said, the most interesting applications are sometimes also the most lucrative.

In California, much of the specialty work underway is addressing modern-day problems or needs. One such recent movement that has boosted the demand for solar-power installations is data storage and management, and cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, have created a need for greater power generation. Another is the doomsday model, in which residents want to be off the grid and self-sufficient in the event of a catastrophe.

In states where marijuana is legal, growers are using solar-power systems for their energy-hungry hydroponic lights. Finally, the military is using solar at its bases to ensure security and autonomy in case the grid ever goes down.

“Off-the-grid homes, data storage, hospitals— that’s where the money is,” Smith said.

Solar deployments also are getting more creative. Panels are no longer just something to put on the roof; in some cases, they are put on display or even turned into an art installation. That’s because it is good for public relations to show customers green energy is at work. Companies not only want to use green energy, but they also want to show others they’re using it.

Paradigm Power and Planning has designed and constructed two net-zero-energy buildings. One recent project included spelling “IBEW” in solar panels on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 332 union hall in San Jose, Calif. The installation catches the eyes of airline passengers flying into the airport.

Zero-energy bases

When it comes to military bases, solar is a solution to the problem of overdependence on the grid. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has pursued solar power on its bases to reduce energy consumption as well as to enhance energy self-sufficiency at each site.

A joint initiative between the DOD and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) created in 2008 addresses military energy use, which has led to a task force striving for net-zero energy military installations. Those sites would produce as much energy on-site from renewable-energy generation or through the on-site use of renewable fuels as they consume in buildings, facilities and fleet vehicles.

In the meantime, the state of California is focusing on meeting its targets for new and existing building-energy standards. Just two years from now, it aims for all new residential buildings to meet net-zero-energy requirements. By 2030, the law will also apply to all new commercial buildings and 50 percent of existing ones.

Going off the grid

In many parts of the world, solar is the first solution for powering homes that were never connected to a grid. In the United States, some residents are seeking energy independence.

According to a study conducted by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Lighting Global, about 1.2 billion people worldwide live off the grid. Companies now are targeting those residents with easy-to-install products such as stand-alone solar lanterns and solar- home-system kits. Not surprisingly, most of those homes are outside the United States, but new rural American homes with no utility connection face similar needs and represent an opportunity for contractors.

According to the DOE’s Office of Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs, an off-grid solar-power system makes sense in rural areas where it is difficult and expensive to extend existing transmission lines. Combined with modern battery backup systems, a solar-plus-storage system can meet an entire household’s electricity needs.

Panels are no longer just something to put on the roof; in some cases, they are put on display or even turned into an art installation. Credit: Shutterstock / Federico Rostagno
Panels are no longer just something to put on the roof; in some cases, they are put on display or even turned into an art installation. Credit: Shutterstock / Federico Rostagno

Storm recovery

As weather becomes more intense, solar offers a solution as well. Becca Jones-Albertus, deputy director in the Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) at the DOE, finds that off-grid solar is more popular in countries rebuilding grid infrastructure after extreme weather events where electricity isn’t guaranteed and power outages occur every day.

“In addition to everyday electricity use, we’ve also seen healthcare applications abroad,” she said.

For decades, some private companies have used solar-powered vaccine refrigerators, enabling healthcare workers in remote areas to provide lifesaving medications to people in need. Beyond that, solar windows, solar-powered car surfaces and smart sensors using solar power are finding their way into both urban and rural areas.

These kinds of solutions are attracting interest in the United States, as well.

“We are currently looking at how microgrid- solar installations with storage can improve resiliency,” Jones-Albertus said.

One project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is targeted to help communities use solar to recover faster after a natural disaster or other major grid event. Today, once electricity is lost, restarting the grid is performed manually using specialized generators.

“It can be a very slow process, and it does not account for electricity that could be generated by distributed sources,” Jones-Albertus said.

Using “agile islanding“—a process involving development of microgrids around local solar customers—solar electricity can help restore critical grid functions faster and enable communities to resume normal operations.

Blockchain for power sharing

Blockchain applications for solar energy also are an area of interest for the DOE and SETO, Jones-Albertus said. In May 2018, the office announced it is funding two new blockchain- focused projects through its Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.

Both projects will explore the feasibility of new trading platforms that could enable energy consumers and commercial and industrial buildings to buy and sell excess rooftop photovoltaic-energy generation in a secure and reliable way.

Lower electricity prices and more affordable solar electricity remain a priority for the DOE. One SETO-funded project from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association is working with electric cooperatives to provide training and tools that lower the costs for those groups to go solar.

“Over the past three years, co-ops across the country quadrupled their solar capacity and soon could reach a gigawatt of solar,” Jones-Albertus said.

In 2017, the solar industry achieved SETO’s 2020 cost target for utility-scale solar power, three years ahead of schedule. Achieving SETO’s 2030 cost targets would halve the current cost of solar electricity again, making it one of the most affordable electricity sources.

“This would enable even more Americans to use solar energy and could lead to widespread adoption,” Jones-Albertus said.

One enabler for these new applications is the greater ability to control energy generated from solar panels, said Dan Whitten, SEIA communications vice president.

“Solar’s appeal is really spreading because it is a low-cost solution that allows companies to control their own energy generation and use,” he said.

Thousands of U.S. businesses have set their own goals for carbon emissions, even as the federal government has stepped back. While going solar may be good publicity, it also comes down to a smart business decision that makes economic sense and helps their bottom line.

“That also has helped support greater investment in solar,” Whitten said. “The greatest sector for growth recently has been large utility-scale projects that can generate enough electricity for many thousands of homeowners from one power plant.”

Solar is helping provide power for data storage and management, Whitten said. The economic case for solar on big data centers, whose electricity usage makes up a large chunk of their operating costs, is just too good. This is another reason why big tech companies such as Apple and Google are moving toward solar.

“We anticipate another strong year for solar in 2018, even as the industry fights price-altering tariffs implemented by the Trump administration in January,” Whitten said.

He anticipates that another 10-plus gigawatts of capacity will be added in the next year, and solar is on its way to representing 15 percent of America’s annual electricity generation by 2030.

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