Helping companies install solar has been one of the core areas of focus for The Energy Project since it was first founded. Over this time we’ve helped dozens of clients navigate the process of sizing, specifying, procuring and installing a solar system. In this article, we’ll provide a high-level overview of the key things you should consider when going solar and provide links along the way to more detailed consideration of each aspect.

I’m assuming at this point that somewhere in your organisation an in-principle decision has been made to install some solar PV panels and you’ve been given the job of making it happen.

We think of the process in four key steps:

  • Get an approximate idea of what size system you’ll install, including the development of a business case (financial returns) that looks at current and expected energy consumption.
  • Work out which rooftops and buildings are most suited for installing panels on.
  • Develop an understanding of the components that you’ll be installing.
  • Choose a company to install the solar system for you.

System sizing

First up you need to form a ball-park estimate of the size of the system you might be installing. To do this:

  1. Get an understanding of existing energy consumption and time of day profile. This is completed using data available from your electricity retailer.
  2. Understand any export limits that might apply. These are set by the distribution network service provider that is responsible for the poles and wires in your local area (for example, SA Power Networks, Ausgrid, Endeavour, Essential Energy, Energy Queensland, Ausnet, Powercor – or others, depending on your location).
  3. Check capacity of the electrical infrastructure on the site and individual buildings.
  4. Check the available rooftop areas for solar PV panel placement.
  5. Understand your priorities for return on investment vs payback. Are you willing to invest more for a larger return with higher risk over a longer period or are you more focussed on a system that will pay itself back as quickly as possible?
  6. Check your budget based on a simple system cost estimate using $/Watt pricing.

Learn more about each of these steps in our detailed guide to commercial solar system sizing.

Rooftop selection

Once you have a rough idea of the size of the system you’re looking to install you need to decide where it will go. This often becomes a series of trade-offs that takes into account a number of factors to come up with the optimal result.

At a minimum you’ll need to consider:

  • Roof tilt or slope
  • Roof orientation (north, south, east or west)
  • Choose between flush-mounted panels or tilting them up towards the sun
  • Panel cleaning, particularly with panels on nearly flat surfaces
  • The capacity of the existing electrical distribution systems in the building below the rooftops
  • The structural capacity of the roof to support the solar panels
  • Shading of the roof from trees or adjacent buildings both those that exist now or which might in future
  • Array sizes including maintenance access allowances and edge clearances
  • Lastly, the condition of the roofing in the case of older rooftops.

Again there’s a long list of things to consider regarding rooftop selection. Each of the above points are considered in more detail in our discussion of commercial solar PV panel placement.

3 quotes vs engaging a consultant

From here the next step is to think about what equipment (makes, models and associated features) you’ll buy and who you’ll buy it from. But how do you get to this point?

There are two common approaches we see:

  • a) Approach three installers for quotes on solar. They will be able to help you answer most of the above questions and provide quotes which satisfy them.
  • b) Engage a consultant to produce a feasibility study which will analyse your site and identify a suitable size system, give pricing and payback guidance, undertake the necessary electrical and structural investigations to confirm the suitability of individual rooftops.

The Energy Project is an energy consultant that provides such services so we’re obviously biased, but here’s why. Solar companies are used to customers ‘kicking the tyres’. For every job they get, they might be quoting on 5-10. So the motivation and ability to go to the nth degree isn’t necessarily high.

Our approach is to work with clients to identify what a successful project looks like. We can then advise if your investment hurdle is achievable and with confidence, go to the market with a project that we know is proceeding. At this point, a well-targeted procurement exercise, that highlights to vendors that you’re serious about proceeding and they have a real chance of winning your business, is viewed very favourably. And you get a more thorough and detailed response from the solar provider – with, in our experience, a better price than if you’d walked in off the street.

Lastly – a consultant can use their experience to efficiently manage the process of obtaining, reviewing and negotiating with installers then follow through with quality assurance to ensure the system was installed correctly.

System Components

Whether you go down the road of getting 3 quotes or using a consultant to help you develop a specification, it’s worth having an understanding of what exactly you’ll be buying when you purchase a solar PV system.

The main components are:

  • Solar Panels (of course)
  • Inverter – which converts DC power made by the panels into AC power which can be used by the appliances in your facility.
  • Racking systems – to mount the panels to your rooftop
  • Network Protection Equipment – required on all systems over 30kW, these devices protect line workers (and the grid) by ensuring the system works only within set parameters.
  • Monitoring – to keep track of the output of your system and alert you to any faults that need to be rectified.
  • Metering upgrades – to allow you to get paid for any export power that you send to the grid.
  • Other electrical and mechanical works – an often overlooked but critical part of your solar system. Electrical works include cabling, switchgear and safety equipment that makes up the ‘balance of system’. Mechanical works include cable management and safe access systems. Faults, failures or poor workmanship in these areas can readily cause system degradation and are often the first point of failure.

Some of the above components are dictated by network rules and regulations for which compliance needs to be ensured. Others such as inverters and monitoring systems have different features that you might utilise as a system owner. You can learn more about each of these in our article on solar system components.

Choosing an installer

Finally, having worked out your system size, where it’s to be installed and having an understanding of the components involved you need to choose someone to install it.

At this stage, I’m assuming you have a few quotes in hand.

We think about this step in two parts a) choosing a quote and b) choosing the installer.

To compare the quotes received we suggest looking at these 7 key areas:

  1. Technical attributes of the system design – panel layout, system modelling, regulatory compliance
  2. Quality of components used
  3. Inclusions, exclusions and qualifications that may impact the price or the system delivered
  4. Project management methodology
  5. The level of engagement of the vendor in the quoting process
  6. Intangibles such as flexibility, local business support or additional services offered
  7. Price

To compare the installers we suggest taking into account

  • Business strength
  • Relevant experience
  • Project management capability
  • Alignment of size and operating mode between you and the installer

Per the previous sections, each of these points is considered in more detail in our article on choosing a commercial solar installer.

We hope this high-level overview has been helpful along with the more detailed guides. If you’re an Australian business looking to install solar, please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance.