Solar implementations - what you need to know upfront

By Kevin Norris
In the wake of looming energy price hikes many organisations are proactively considering solar solutions as an alternative. The time...

In the wake of looming energy price hikes many organisations are proactively considering solar solutions as an alternative. The time to go solar has never been better. However, solar solutions projects required to power an organisation can be complex, with a number of "hidden" costs and potential pitfalls that could jeopardise its success. Companies should be aware of the challenges before embarking on their solar project.

Cost calculations

In planning a solar solution, one of the most common errors made is the failure to properly calculate the true costs. Solar solutions comprise of more than just solar panels and inverters. According to the Solar Energy Industries Associationover sixty percent of the total cost of solar solutions in the US lie in the "soft" costs, with the actual panels and inverters making up less than forty percent. The same parameters are very likely to hold true for South Africa and the rest of the globe.

Organisations should carefully scrutinise their solar provider quotes to ensure that all ancillary costs; labour, site surveys, engineering and design fees are factored in. Also, peripheral components such as mounting structures and/or assemblies and wire management costs should be included. It's not always possible to accurately calculate all costs until implementation is complete, as the scope may change or difficulties may be experienced throughout the course of the project. This is especially true when obtaining budget quotes where no site surveys or assessments have been done.

In addition, it is critical to account for storage, transport and security of all delivered equipment, bearing in mind that components may lie in storage for some time while the project is under way. Solar equipment is a hot target for theft, therefore, twenty-four-hour security is imperative for the duration of the project.

It takes a team

A successful solar solution is the result of skills that extend beyond the installation phase of the project. Depending on the scope, scale and conditions of the solar solution, different people will be needed to contribute their expertise, and advise at various stages of the project.

Solutions architects are needed to design and engineer the solution, based on a site survey which yields information on the requirement and site conditions. The is a lengthy process and many companies fail to comprehend the amount of work that goes into planning and designing a solution before a proper quotation can even be raised. This is one of the reasons why budget quotes are so unreliable.

If the solution is mounted on high poles (for example with security camera power supply applications), car ports or at ground level, civil engineers will be needed to assess soil conditions and provide a solid, stable foundation. A weak or poorly factored foundation can result in the entire structure collapsing at the first sign of strong winds or excessive rainfall. If the solar solution is going atop a roof, structural engineers will be required to assess structural stability and strength of the building, and make structural enhancements if necessary.

The stringent regulations of The Occupational Health and Safety Act must be adhered to, as inspectors may investigate a solar solution at any time during implementation. Failure to comply can result in very costly fines, as well as a halt in production until compliance is met. A formal Health and Safety officer will ensure that the project is registered with the Department of Labour, and that all standards are adhered to.

There are also many other professionals that may be required, from electricians to environmental impact assessors. It takes a team for a solar solution to be implemented in a sustainable and successful manner, and organisations should ensure their solar solution provider includes these associated personnel costs in their quote.

Additional things to consider

There are several additional, yet, important aspects that aren't always considered when planning and implementing a solar solution, resulting in exceeded budgets, poor installation or even risk of fines. These include:

•    The impact of environmental factors such as wind, rain and proximity to the coast;

•    Logistics requirements - forklift and utility vehicle hire, and storage space required for the duration of the project;

•    Insurance - both during and after installation, to mitigate risk;

•    Using reputable suppliers - poor quality equipment, or civil work, will inevitably lead to having to do repairs and replacements before necessary;

•    Applications - depending on the scale and location of the solution, organisations need to lodge applications with various governing and regulatory bodies such as the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA), the Department of Energy, the local utility provider, the department of Health & Safety, etc.;

•    Time - a sizeable project can take several months or longer to complete, factoring in travel, accommodation and subsistence allowances for installation staff for the estimated duration of the project, etc.;

•    Solution maintenance - solar solutions are fairly self-sufficient once up and running, however they do need to be regularly maintained and monitored to ensure maximum efficiency and uptime. There are remote monitoring systems which proactively monitor for issues such as soiled solar PV modules, degradation, and wear and tear, sending an automatic alert when performance drops so that businesses respond accordingly and address the area of concern. This extends the longevity of the solution and can reduce the risk of downtime or system failure.

Before embarking on a solar solution, businesses should make sure they use a reputable solar solution specialist provider who fully understands the requirement before they begin. The service provider needs to be invested in software and hardware solar knowledge, and must be able to identify possible areas of risk or concern so that they can be addressed at the initial phase - possibly even from quote stage. Finally, a competent service provider should have a demonstrable track record of successful solar implementations to prove their experience.

Kevin Norris is the Consulting Solutions Architect: Renewable Energy at Jasco Intelligent Technologies.


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