Residential solar workforces have been slashed amid the Covid-19 induced economic slowdown, prompting some rooftop solar companies to explore outsourcing solar design to independent contractors.
Maintaining existing rooftop solar project deadlines and keeping costs down is always important, but, in the face of the skyrocketing residential solar cancellations and residential solar installation postponements that started when lockdowns began in the U.S. in mid-March, it is paramount.
“[Currently] most companies are seeing a drop in sales, or their designers now have to work from home which makes training new designers almost impossible,” said Rob Barker, CEO of Three Line Design, an Orem, Utah-based residential solar design firm that launched a month ago, he said.
According to data aggregated by Ohm Analytics, solar permits have fallen substantially since the Covid-19 crisis began. Solar permits in California, for example, averaged 902 per week between January and March 2nd, but by the week ending March 30th, California’s weekly solar permit volume was at 536.
For startup and medium-sized companies, outsourcing makes sense, Barker said. “You want to have strong designers to eliminate problems for your customers’ accounts, but to pay for a full-time designer gets costly [when you consider] the number of accounts you have per week for a designer to do,” he said. Fluent Solar and Solarise Solar have outsourced some their solar design to Three Line Design, he added.
Whether commoditizing residential solar design in this way will create long-term efficiencies or lead to lasting change will depend on the customer feedback loop. Due to the boom-bust nature of the U.S. residential solar market, it would be premature to make a call on the “new normal” in residential solar, said Josh Weiner, CEO of SepiSolar, a firm that generates about 20% of its solar engineering and design business from residential solar clients and the rest from the commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors.
Ultimately, Covid-19 might end up accelerating the pre-pandemic trend of outsourcing solar modelling. “In the solar modelling space, there was already more of a drive towards cost reduction due to competition within solar and with utility rates, and in- or out-sourcing can play a role in that,” Chris Hopper, co-founder of Aurora Solar, a software firm that has developed a suite of tools that lets customers remotely assess potential solar sites and model and price solar projects.
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“For startup and medium-sized companies, outsourcing makes sense, Barker said. “You want to have strong designers to eliminate problems for your customers’ accounts, but to pay for a full-time designer gets costly [when you consider] the number of accounts you have per week for a designer to do,” he said. Fluent Solar and Solarise Solar have outsourced some their solar design to Three Line Design, he added.”
There seems to be a rise in electric companies that want to cash in on the residential and small business solar PV market. They actually have some of if not all of their electricians NABCEP certified. So, in fluctuating economies like right now, these small electrical firms, can tap into residential and business electrical as well as solar PV installation and repair services. National firms have that onerous overhead, warehousing then sales and service to promote and keep busy during down turns. Their overhead is higher and always will be due to volume of regional accounts that wane and wan during the year. Local electrical companies, have their business area, are well known in the area and can be expected to “be there” when the solar PV system needs some kind of repair.
Then there are kit solar PV companies out there that offer “kits” in different sizes, components and in grid tied or off grid configurations. When one looks at the kit prices and finds the BOS components required to install a solar PV system on one’s home, you realize pretty quickly, large firms like the former Solar City, TESLA are not the most cost effective for (your) particular installation or needs. One can actually find grid tied solar PV kits with BOS components for $25K or less installed, today. Like any other “construction” project one would have done to their home, from kitchen, bathroom upgrades to room additions, find three solar PV installation firms, and get a quote for the purchase and installation of “their” solar PV offerings, keeping in mind, National solar PV companies are not necessarily the best because they are “big” and the local guy is “small”.
Why wouldn’t a smaller company do this all the time? This is a win-win for everybody. The company doesn’t have to house the designers and a company like Three Line Design will be super proficient at getting the job done at probably a better price.
It is great to see some young entrepreneurs seeing a need and solving problems! Best of luck to all involved!
One of the best things about solar is its hands-on approach – it puts locals to work and every roof is different, making configurations complex. Home construction projects aren’t down due to the virus, in fact, home remodeling is at all-time highs (look at big box contractor purchasing) and that’s with greater in-home touch. Solar installs are relatively low touch to the consumer by comparison. Would you trust your HVAC install on a roof to just software?
It may be more of a problem of competing budget items and while more have hours reduced or are out of work completely. Let’s not confuse automation with skilled professionalism and knowledge management.
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