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How To Affordably Buy Quality In The Solar Industry

Hello, Business Owner. Congratulations on deciding to “go solar”! You will enjoy your reduced energy expense, reduced operating risk, improvement to your bottom line, increased value of your building, plus cred as a steward of the environment. You may wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. We have many clients that wonder that same thing, and regularly call us to thank us for building their project, or pick up the tab at happy hour!

But how to get the job done? The larger the project, the more important is this question.

There are lots of solar development and engineering and construction companies that deliver a high-quality solar project for their clients. Some solar manufacturers also develop their own projects. Most of these companies will deliver a quality project. But there also are plenty of “two men and a truck” companies that are not quite up to the task of delivering a solar project that will safely perform for 25 to 30 years.

How is a buyer (meaning the owner) supposed to tell the difference?

Many owners are experienced at maintaining and operating their business and their physical plant, whether it is a hotel, office building, stadium, or factory. But few are experienced with buying capital construction, and even fewer still with buying a solar-energy system. If the solar-energy system is also a microgrid incorporating energy storage and complex controls, then it can be even more confusing.

The first thing to consider is hiring a consulting Owner’s Rep or Owner’s Agent. This is a common practice in building construction. Almost every building construction project has an architect and engineer, and ideally those companies are separate from the construction company. Ideally an Owner’s Rep is a “temporary extension of the Owner’s team” for the duration of the project, that has expertise in buying and managing the process for the Owner. The Owner’s Rep will manage the engineering process, the construction bidding, equipment selection, and then the actual construction. Then the Owner’s Rep should oversee the preparation of the Operations Manuals and owner training, and perform a system inspection and production test to make sure the system is working as promised.

More and more solar companies are offering their services as Owner’s Rep consultants in this way. But just like the two-men-and-a-truck situation, there are good and not-so-good practitioners of this specialization.

The best solar Owner’s Agent will have abundant experience engineering and building solar projects like yours, and have lots of experience as an Owner’s Agent. Ideally they aren’t using your job to learn their job.

Take care to check references and credentials. Make sure the Owner’s Rep really is expert in serving on the Owner’s side of the table and managing the Owner’s goals and best interests. Here are some things to look for.

  • In-house engineers. Particularly if you want to use them as the Owner’s Engineer in addition to the Owner’s Agent.
  • NABCEP-Certified design and installation professionals on staff.
  • Experience as Owner’s Agent on enough projects like yours so you are comfortable they know what they’re doing. This includes the type of system, the type of site, and the locale.
  • Unbiased, and independent of any one technology or manufacturer.
  • They have a comprehensive quality control plan for construction. If they also would be your Owner’s Engineer, they also should have a quality assurance plan for the engineering process.

The Owner’s Rep’s fee should be around 0.5% to 1% of the total project cost (depending on the size and complexity and responsibilities), but it is worth the investment. The Owner’s Rep will help ensure the project remains on budget and schedule, and the level of quality is appropriate to the Owner’s needs.

You may even have better results if the Owner’s Rep can also be the Owner’s Engineer. The Owner’s Engineer/Agent is responsible for quality assurance and developing the Construction Drawings, and then is responsible for quality control during construction.

Again, check their credentials and track record to fulfill this role. Make sure the Owner’s Engineer actually is a licensed Professional Engineer in the locale of the project, and better yet if they are a licensed Engineering Corporation. The fees for Owner’s Engineer should be comparable to the Owner’s Agent fee structure.

The all-in pricing of a solar project will include engineering costs, regardless of whether the engineering is provided by the Builder or an Owner’s Engineer. No one provides quality engineering for free. But developing the engineering package first and then bidding that out to prospective solar construction firms will ensure uniform quality assurance across the board and comparable pricing proposals. Then the Owner’s Agent also is responsible for quality control during construction.

You can compare this situation to building a house. Imagine asking three homebuilders to build you a house that has 4 bedrooms and three bathrooms on two floors – then imagine the variability you will get in the quality and pricing of the proposals.

That is like asking three solar companies to design and build a solar-energy project – the quality and price likely will be as varied as for the houses. How do you capture the Owner’s needs, balancing cost, quality, and schedule at comparable pricing?

That is why we recommend hiring an Owner’s Engineer for all complex or large solar-energy projects, and certainly for all solar-storage-microgrid projects.

Your Owner’s Engineer / Owner’s Agent should easily earn their fees in reduction of construction changes and additional cost, providing the most cost-effective solutions to achieve your goals, and ensuring the system performs safely for decades to come.

 

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