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New Research Program

Predictions for Solar Infrastructure in 2012: No Longer the Ugly Stepchild


2011 was a unique year in the solar power industry, with spectacular flameouts in spite of continued growth in global demand. Much of the Sturm und Drang centered on the panels and their components — polysilicon, wafers, cells and the modules themselves — while ignoring the importance of racking and mounting systems. Although solar infrastructure accounts for only a small percentage of the average project cost, proper mounting is crucial to the success and long-term stability of any installation. Improperly mounted installations can severely compromise the integrity of a system.

Racking may be the last thing you think of, but it is the first thing that goes in. Therefore, more attention must be given to the infrastructure that supports the entire system. As such, 2012 will be the year when people finally realize the critical importance of solar power infrastructure. Here are a few of my related predictions:

1.  Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) will replace cost per watt as a measuring stick.

Maximizing your investment in solar is as much about the infrastructure as it is about the photovoltaic (PV) modules. For that reason, cost per watt is a false measurement. The industry’s attention is starting to turn to Balance of System (BOS) matters, and rightly so. Innovations in reducing not only equipment costs, but also maintenance and labor costs, are important factors necessary for solar to scale.

In 2012, expect to see focus on TCO to paint a more accurate pricing picture than cost per watt. With maintenance costs running an estimated 2-3 times the initial project installation cost, the best way to lower a given project’s TCO — something that everyone wants — is to standardize on solar infrastructure that was engineered around two key principles: 1) infrastructure must be easy to install and maintain (i.e. NOT require highly specialized and expensive labor) and 2) infrastructure must be built to last for decades, under even the most extreme weather conditions.

Sophisticated commercial and utility customers are starting to think beyond the old cost per watt measure, as short-term thinking is being replaced by longer-term thinking. Large projects that are installed today require significant capital and they MUST stand the test of time, which means that they must be engineered to continuously perform well over time and under extreme weather conditions. Companies should also offer long-lasting warranties that cover performance, rather than defects, thereby lowering the cost of replacing parts or system failure. Lowering TCO over the lifetime of an array and expediting ROI will spur the expansion of the solar market.

2.  The first solar infrastructure products meeting industry-wide performance standards will come to market.

While thorough standards exist in module manufacturing — there are many codes in place for electrical components – there wasn’t a unilateral standard for solar infrastructure until early 2011, when the International Code Council’s Evaluation Service (ICC-ES) reviewed and adopted the ICC-ES Acceptance Criteria (AC428) for modular framing systems used to support photovoltaic modules in the U.S. This lack of standards has allowed individual project contractors to interpret information differently, leaving room for dramatic miscalculations.

Solar infrastructure must be built to last and tested in the harshest real-world conditions imaginable. Simply put, infrastructure testing should not be an afterthought; it’s too critical to the long-term success of any solar installation. If infrastructure isn’t properly designed and rigorously tested to withstand high winds, rain and heavy snow, it will not stand the test of time in many cases. (For example, sandbag testing will not suffice; its unrealistic testing measures do not compare to real-world weather conditions.)

In 2012, we’ll finally see mounting systems become available that comply with the ICC-ES AC428. These criteria explicitly define how to comply with the International Building Code (IBC) for flush roof and ground mount applications. Additionally, AC428 sets the requirements for material, component and connection testing, strength and reporting. If AC428 has a weakness, it does not specify the exact method of calculating wind loads on roof mounted tilt systems. This area requires further wind tunnel testing and procedures that are reviewed by an independent authority before it is included by ICC-ES. However, the AC428 still contains solid guidance for the structural evaluation of racking components.

3.  Prefabricated, preassembled arrays will become prevalent.

As more government legislation calls for additional solar farms, a paradigm shift must take place to make building PV plants more efficient. Currently most building is done in the field by hand. However, at Unirac we believe that prefabricated, preassembled arrays will become prevalent as the industry grows. Processes such as parallel efforts and preassembly increase installation speed, minimizing building time in the field and maximizing efficiency in project completion after the permitting process. By reducing the expense of field labor and increasing production in factories, overall project cost will drop drastically while installation time becomes shorter.