Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Tariffs or Not, New Installation System Could Change the Solar Energy Game

By Tina Casey

Solar energy fans haven't had much to cheer about during the Trump Administration, especially after the President's recent imposition of tariffs on steel and solar panels. Nevertheless, some analysts see healthy demand persisting in the US solar market. That's partly due to keen interest on the part of US businesses eager to polish their green cred with renewable energy.

Demand could even pass expectations if the cost of installing solar panels continues to drop, helping to offset negative effects from the new tariffs. In one recent development on that score, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been testing a new installation system that could keep pushing down the cost of ground-mounted solar farms. That adds more weight to the argument that now is still a good time to invest in a solar installation, tariff or not.

The soft costs of solar energy

Analysts have pointed out that Trump's new solar tariff only impacts the "hard" cost of solar energy, namely, the panels themselves. "Soft" costs account for much of the overall cost of a new solar installation. That can include anything from marketing and administration to transportation, permitting and labor costs. So, at least theoretically a savings on soft costs could offset any upward movement on hard costs.

One place where hard and soft costs intersect is the racking system needed to position solar panels on the ground or on a rooftop. These systems are generally made of steel, and that could be impacted by the new Trump tariff on imported steel. If the new racking system being tested at NREL pans out, though, labor and associated costs could drop significantly -- and the steel tariff would be a moot issue, too.

A new solar racking system

The new racking system is being developed by the startup Powerfield. The system is designed to overcome three main hurdles.

First, the racks are lightweight, which could mean a significant savings on the cost of materials as well as transportation. Instead of the conventional "Erector Set" system of steel mounted in a concrete base, the system is composed of plastic shaped in a large U. To keep them in place, the plastic shapes are filled with several hundred pounds of any available material, such as sand, dirt or rocks.

If that sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the temporary plastic traffic barriers that can be hauled into place and filled with water for stability, then drained for transportation elsewhere. Powerfield anticipates that between ease of setup and transportability, its new racking system could be used for disaster relief and other temporary installations as well as permanent sites.

With the use of plastic, the new system circumvents the impact of the new steel tariff. In addition, it opens up the potential for using recycled or reclaimed material, including construction debris as well as plastic feedstock.

The second advantage is that the new racks can be installed rapidly without specialized equipment such as pile drivers or concrete mixers. Without the need for a dug foundation, the system could also help simplify the permitting process, which would also help to manage costs.

And third, the solar panels attach to the rack with a proprietary clipping system that requires no special tools or training. That opens the door for community groups and other non-profits to recruit volunteers to install solar energy projects.

The Powerfield system took about a year to bring to the testing stage, which NREL expects to last about six months. In one recent trial, the lab deployed a crew of six inexperienced workers to install 56 panels. The entire exercise took under five hours, and Powerfield anticipates event that time could be shortened.

The next steps include determining exactly how much weight is needed to resist a "worst case scenario" 120-mile-per-hour winds, and analyzing the performance of the solar panels in the new rack.

How low can solar energy go?

Some solar energy analysts have observed that solar companies had ample time to prepare for the new tariff, enabling them to cushion customers from extreme price shocks.

In addition, state-level actions and utility initiatives could have a greater impact on the installed cost of solar energy, though in some cases those actions are designed to push costs up.

Either way, Forbes contributor Ken Silverstein recently noted that the installed cost of utility scale solar energy has dropped 86% since 2009, and the cost of smaller installations has also fallen sharply. In other words, a slight uptick in costs would not necessarily dissuade companies from investing in solar.

Silverstein provides the example of Amazon, which is forging ahead with a massive solar program as part of a 100% renewable energy goal. Apple is another high profile solar energy investor.

A 2017 study by Lazard also adds weight to the trend, providing statistical evidence that coal and nuclear power plants are now more expensive to build than their renewable energy counterparts.

In another emerging wrinkle, oil and gas companies are finally beginning to hedge their bets on fossil energy, and they are beginning to invest serious money in wind and solar. Two recent examples are Shell and BP.

Last fall Kent Moors of the website oilprice.com took a deep dive into the future and came up with an additional set of reasons why solar energy is bound to grow in the US.

Do read the full piece for detail, but the gist of it is that NREL and other Energy Department offices are still deeply engaged in solar grid integration through the SunShot initiative, despite Trump administration policies favoring fossil fuel:

The longer-range goals also focused on a new objective – the reliability of electricity availability. SunShot is now working on advancing grid integration approaches to enable two-way power flows, increase demand response, and optimize charging of electric vehicles.

Such advances, combined with low-cost battery storage, could enable economically competitive solar to be more widely deployed nationwide, while also allowing a greater integration with other renewable power systems.

Like Silverstein, Moors emphasizes that utility scale solar has fallen much more quickly and sharply than small, residential scale solar. Considering that Powerfield anticipates a 20 percent savings from its new racking system, it looks like small scale solar could soon catch up.

Image (screenshot): via Powerfield.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey