Solar giant SunPower just hit the Intertubes with news of a new record-setting installation pace for its trademarked Helix Roof system. The rooftop solar system for commercial properties can be laid down at the hot pace of more than 33 panels per hour for each installer, which SunPower claims easily beats the publicized rate of 12 to 13 panels per hour for other solar companies.
Now that SunPower has our attention, let’s also catch up to the company’s activities in the solar hotspot of Nevada, where other solar installers have pulled out of the market to protest a recent decision by the state Public Utilities Commission.
The Solar Speed Race
Check out the Solar Energy Industries Association’s report for Q2 of 2015 for a snapshot of solar growth in the US, and you’ll see an industry rocketing along at a nice clip. Part of that pace is due to a rapid decline in the cost of solar installations, but only part of that decline can be attributed to a drop in the “hard cost” of photovoltaic technology.
The rest of the costs fall somewhere in the “soft” field, which includes installation time as well as other factors such as permitting and grid connection.
Conventional rooftop solar installation provides plenty of opportunity for soft costs to pile up, as described in the SunPower blog:
Most commercial rooftop systems in use today are comprised of components from a variety of manufacturers. Solar system installers incorporate panels, mounting systems and inverters from a wide variety of vendors and then install and wire the system. It’s a complex, costly approach that is time-consuming and labor-intensive with increased risk.
Up until a few years ago, soft costs used to account for about half the total cost of an installed solar system and they are falling, but PV tech costs are falling faster. As of 2013 soft costs accounted for almost 65 percent of total solar costs.
That’s why SunPower’s new rooftop solar announcement is so significant. One critical force behind the speed of the Helix system is its compact, all-in-one power system:
As described by SunPower, the “plug and play” power station does this:
…eliminates the need to strip and land wires on site. The Helix Roof system requires 67 percent fewer field connections compared to conventional commercial rooftop systems.
We’re thinking that the Helix speed record could go higher than 33 per hour per installer, because SunPower states that it set the record with a three-person team of experienced solar workers who had never installed the Helix system before.
Solar Upheaval In Nevada
CleanTechnica has been following the situation in Nevada, where the Nevada PUC recently hammered the rooftop solar industry with a new net metering rate structure that retroactively imposes additional costs on existing rooftop solar customers, as well as increasing the rates for new solar customers.
In the ensuring uproar, leading solar company SolarCity shut down much of its operations, and another leading company, SunRun, moved out completely. Vivint Solar, another big player in Nevada solar, also closed its doors.
SunPower has yet to make an official statement about the dustup, and for good reason. Just last December the company announced the start of construction on the 100 megawatt Boulder Solar power plant, a ground mounted system located in Boulder City, Nevada. The utility NV Energy — which directly benefits from the new net metering rates — already has a 20-year agreement to purchase electricity from the plant.
The Boulder project will deploy SunPower’s proprietary Oasis system. Here’s the rundown from SunPower:
Oasis is a fully-integrated, modular solar power block that is engineered for rapid and cost-effective deployment of utility-scale solar projects while optimizing land use. The technology includes robotic solar panel cleaning capability that uses 75 percent less water than traditional cleaning methods and can help improve system performance by up to 15 percent.
SunPower is also the developer of a new ground mounted solar power plant for NV Energy at Nellis Air Force Base.
According to the newest Air Force release, the new solar array — Nellis II — will be the largest solar power plant in the Department of Defense, clocking in at 19 megawatts of direct current.
An earlier utility scale solar plant, Nellis I, previously held the DoD’s biggest title when it was completed in 2007 at 14 megawatts.
Here’s Air Force rundown on the arrangement with NV Energy:
Nellis II will be constructed by SunPower Corp. and owned and operated by NV Energy, the Nevada state utility. Under the 31-year lease agreement, NV Energy will sell energy produced by the array to the base at existing tariff rates. Nellis will purchase all the power it needs from the array and any additional energy produced by the system will then go to the outside grid for use by NV Energy’s other customers.
The Air Force press release also notes that the on-base location of the new power plant translates into a measure of additional security for both the Air Force and civilian customers, so there’s that.
We’re guessing that the new solar net metering rules in Nevada will be hashed over for some time to come, but one way or another, the solar market will continue to grow.
Images via SunPower
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