The global solar installation company PanelClaw has just announced a new initiative to reduce the cost of a solar power installation, and it’s taking an interesting tack. The company has come up with a package that streamlines some of the “soft cost” factors involved in a typical rooftop solar installation, enabling its installation partners to lower their bids while relieving customers from some of the uncertainties that can be involved in a new solar project.
PanelClaw’s strategy is significant because soft costs such as shipping, installation, permitting and grid connections account for fully half the overall cost of a solar installation in the U.S. While a new generation of cheaper, more efficient solar cells will eventually help drive down prices, for the here and now, the solar industry still has a golden opportunity to keep steering the installed cost of solar power on a steady downward trend by focusing on soft costs.
PanelClaw’s soft cost solutions
PanelClaw provides a good illustration of the need for solar companies to continue innovating in order to stay ahead of competition from within the solar sector, while also facing down competitors in the fossil fuel industry as well as other competitors in wind power and other renewable sectors.
Part of the company’s success so far has been due to its attentiveness to the overall lifecycle costs of a solar installation, rather than a narrow focus on solar cell efficiency.
One critical feature is the PanelClaw’s pre-assembled solar modules, which integrate a number of features that would otherwise add on costs at the installation site, including ballast and electrical systems. The integrated ballast also means that in many cases, the PanelClaw roof-mounted modules can be installed without penetrating the roof (similarly, the company’s ground-mounted systems typically do not require a concrete pad).
The company also took lifecycle maintenance of both the solar module and the roof into consideration. The modules are designed with a small footprint to reduce interference with rainwater or snowmelt flow, and they have a “tilt-up” feature to provide easier access to the roof membrane and drains. Ease of disassembly and recycling were also taken into account in the design.
The latest initiative, announced just yesterday, enables PanelClaw’s installation partners to offer a guaranteed installation time for first-time customers. PanelClaw will also cover the cost of shipping for its flat roof solar products, as well as providing full technical documentation for the design, including the cost of obtaining Professional Engineer certification for wind and seismic load.
Leading the way to lower soft costs
PanelClaw also illustrates how a solar company can get out ahead of the competition by working with trade groups and government agencies (for which the Obama Administration is offering plenty of opportunities, by the way) to establish a track record of industry leadership.
This past January, PanelClaw became one of the founding members of the new truSolar™ Working Group consortium. TruSolar’s mission is to create uniform standards for screening, rating and underwriting solar projects, in order to attract more financing into the commercial and industrial solar installation market. The ultimate goal will be a more reliable flow of capital at lower rates, which will help reduce the end cost of solar installations.
In its press materials, the company notes that there are about 6,500 banks and lending institutions in the U.S., but most have been scared away from the solar sector due to “ongoing concerns about, and misunderstanding, industry risks.” By truSolar’s count, less than five percent are currently financing solar projects.
Other members of the group include Distributed Sun, DuPont Photovoltaic Solutions, ABB, Assurant, Inc., Mosaic, PanelClaw, SMA America, Standard & Poor’s, Booz Allen Hamilton, Rocky Mountain Institute, and the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory.
The last piece of the competitiveness puzzle
That leads to the next question, which is how a company like PanelClaw can maintain a competitive edge in a mature industry, in which uniform standards provide customers with a baseline of expectation and assurance.
In that regard, the solar industry is no different than any other industry. Once the basics of customer satisfaction are covered, the aforementioned industry leadership is one key factor that has traditionally enabled certain companies to stand out from the pack.
Another emerging critical factor is a company’s social responsibility record, including its involvement in renewable energy and other sustainability-related measures.
Here, PanelClaw demonstrates a holistic approach that serves double duty as a bottom line benefit. In addition to designing its solar modules with low-impact site preparation, maintenance and reclamation considerations, the lightweight design of the modules helps to cut the carbon footprint (and costs) of shipping. The company also uses recycled automobile tires, slag, and cardboard for packaging, and its main facility is powered by, you guessed it, a 175 kW solar array.
[Image: Courtesy of PanelClaw]