DG is Solar’s Best Bet until Medium Scale Takes OffBy Cas Biekmann | Fri, 09/11/2020 - 14:52
Q: What services does the company provide?
A: I founded Solaris PV as an engineering and consulting firm to provide consulting and owner’s engineering services. Our portfolio of services is quite broad. For example, one day we can be working on a high-level solar market research for a customer that wants to understand the solar landscape in Mexico, with the interest of participating in the sector. Some other day, we can be working on detailed designs for photovoltaic systems up to 10MW, or basic designs for higher power photovoltaic plants. Recently, design for distributed generation (DG) or small-scale PV plants (less than 10 MW) has become one of our bread and butter business areas. Others services we offer include production estimates with PVSyst, construction monitoring, EPC bid management, equipment selection, site visits for feasibility analysis, solar engineering services in general and training courses in PVSyst or best practices for construction.
The company has partnered with GroundWork Renewables and with Heliolytics. GroundWork is a California-based company that installs meteorological measurement equipment and Heliolytics provides aerial imaging analysis for larger-scale solar projects.
Q: Where are the main opportunities for companies to improve in the early engineering stages of a solar project in DG?
A: Regarding DG, we focus on commercial and industrial (C&I) projects from 100KW up to 0.5MW. Recently, we’ve seen a renewed interest in the small-scale sector, up to 10MW, and have been participating in some of these projects. Above 0.5MW is not DG from a regulatory standpoint but could be considered as such from the solar industry’s point of view. In terms of opportunities for DG, there are tons of empty rooftops available in Mexico (as well as in other countries), which opens up an immense area of opportunity. There is a great deal of potential that could be harnessed. Commercial and industrial rooftops imply a relatively easy design and installation that shouldn’t be misinterpreted as simple because most of these rooftops in Mexico are made of metal, and C&I buildings have an industrial type of electrical infrastructure which facilitates interconnection. The energy savings that can be achieved with solar on these rooftops are significant. Aside from that, the cost of electricity is locked down for a long period of time and, of course, there are all the environmental benefits. Solar thermal applications to generate hot water for C&I is also a great area of opportunity.
However, this also comes with its share of challenges, such as Mexico’s changing regulatory framework. Aside from this major factor, and there is quite a bit written about this out there, there are a few other issues that come into play. One challenge is that there is often no structural report of the building available. Owners frequently do not want to invest in this analysis, even though it would bring them peace of mind regarding the integrity of their building. Having an accurate analysis is important for solar systems for instance, each panel, including cables and mounting structures, adds around 30kg of weight. If you multiply this by 1,000 modules for about 400 kW of power, you have added 30 tons to the structure, which is not insignificant. This, to me, is a serious risk that is often overseen.
Another challenge is CFE, of course. Achieving interconnection can be a real problem for many reasons. Sometimes, CFE’s processes run smoothly depending on the office and personnel you are dealing with and other times, the process is filled with obstacle after obstacle, including bribes, unfortunately. For instance, we have a project right now, that already has a year and two months that was completed and it is not yet interconnected. Thirdly, commercial and industrial off-takers often would rather see an ROI within two to three years. This does not happen in solar but I believe this is a somewhat shortsighted perspective. Solar systems last for 25 years or much more. Even if you achieve ROI after 10 years, you still have 15 years at a minimum, of amazingly cheap energy left. Why not invest in such a system?
Finally, I also believe that installers in general, should raise the bar in terms of quality on design and installation. Aside from trying to enforce the structural analysis of the building, I have seen multiple projects, or companies that operate without engineering analysis reports, without drawings (or poorly made drawings), without construction records, without quality control plans, without knowledge and training on safety standards, either missing one or all of the aforementioned deficiencies, to name some of the most significant.
Q: How has the pandemic affected demand for Solaris PV’s broad service portfolio?
A: It has had an effect. Many customers have decided to postpone projects but in general, we keep moving forward, particularly in DG. This has turned into the main source of work for us, whereas our core business in the past was more focused on utility-scale projects. Manufacturers and developers are seeing serious challenges appear in Mexico’s regulatory framework and this is halting their large projects. As a result, manufacturers of panels and inverters are turning their attention toward DG. Developers and installers are following this trend as well, this may the reason why we now see a renewed attention towards small-scale photovoltaic plants
Q: Where does the company expect to be working most in the short and medium term?
A: We will continue to provide our services in the traditional sectors we focus on. Our decisions are more driven by the market, which is now leading us toward DG. We will go in that direction as well as looking into medium-scale projects between 500KW and 10MW.We will see how well this goes. Due to their size, these projects require both an interconnection and generation permit. We were working with a customer on a 6MW project but we are now on standby due to the recent regulatory changes. Nonetheless, this market segment is promising and we would like to see it flourish. In the meantime, DG will provide the most work for us for now.
Solaris PV provides solar engineering services in Mexico and LATAM mainly. The company focus is on technical and owner’s advisory services for investors, developers and construction companies in the photovoltaic market.