January 21, 2013

Solar Engineering PV Lessons Learned And Improved Opportunities

In the drive towards achieving grid parity for solar power, soft costs will continue to trend downward, but often they can add value and yield reduced costs and improved performance.

Typically soft costs such as engineering, can equate to pennies per Watt and equate to a very small percentage of construction. Subsequently, a design that fails to be efficient, or a process that does not incorporate engineering input at the onset, or causes construction change orders, can negatively impact the bottom line.

For example, we frequently brainstorm ideas to enhance system and material options, installation techniques, local utility constraints, etc. that clients may overlook.

The need for comprehensive services has grown significantly in just five years. KMB’s full service solar engineering and project management services now include PV design, electrical, structural, civil & environmental, permitting, applications. Our projects range from very small (10KW) to large (20MW) including rooftop, carport, ground-mount, and post-up systems.

This work involves distributed generation and utility projects, and a variety of facility types including municipal, educational, office buildings, retail, industrial, mission critical and more. Our projects have ranged from Massachusetts to Hawaii and throughout the US. As a result, we offer best practices and lessons learned with solar companies that may have limited variations in their target markets and installation types.

Examples of engaging the engineer to a greater extent include:

  • Connecticut’s ZREC program – While many solar developers have entered this market, the utility companies’ metering standards pose challenges to electrical services and interconnection and can cause significant unplanned construction costs and space issues. Our upfront expertise has helped these solar companies to allow for inclusion of more creative solutions.
  • Customization – We can perform structural engineering for custom carports and more, which are then built by a local steel fabricator. In one case, we designed a new open structure on the roof of an auto dealership with a standing seam metal roof, then fastened the PV modules to the roof with S-5! clips. With price constraints as they are, the approach was more viable than a pre-fabricated system.
  • Consistency and volume cost savings – National clients often have one standard for design and equipment. However, a regional approach can be advantageous since variations are seen in utility company requirements, local agency and permitting requirements, standard construction processes, structural and environmental differences, etc.
  • Advice & Expertise – Electrical engineering design choices are numerous. Central vs. string inverters; small vs. large combiner boxes; fixed tilt vs. tracking systems; conduits vs. cable trays; 2% voltage drop vs. another standard; and more.  We provide the advice and expertise to make the most of these choices.

With our experiences not only in solar PV installations for these many varied building types, but our MEP Engineering for building in many different market sectors, we ask the questions and take these factors into consideration.

In short, while equipment costs and financial models are a large part of the equation in the development of a solar renewable energy project, it is important to appreciate the short and long-term effects that solid design and engineering can offer right from the start.


About the Author:

Steve Schwerd is a partner at KMB Design Group and leads the facilities and energy engineering division as vice president. Steve is a nationally recognized name in the renewable energy field and is a LEED accredited professional.

Contact Steve Schwerd
Email: sschwerd@kmbdg.com
Phone: (732) 280-5623