March of 2020 represents an inflection point for several industries large and small. The introduction of the coronavirus pandemic on a global state caught many businesses unprepared. Major fashion retailers struggled to adapt to a world sharply driven by online consumption, while technology and logistics companies thrived. Despite initial setbacks, 2020 was a record year for many solar providers. And as was established in a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Solar Power World, the solar industry experienced its own metaphorical “solar coaster” in its efforts to disseminate clean, renewable energy.
The discussion, held on February 23, 2020, was moderated by Editor in Chief Kelly Pickerel, and paneled by four experts representing the residential, commercial, utility, and manufacturing branches of the solar industry. Their conversation spanned everything from initial difficulties at the onset of the pandemic in the United States, to the role of renewable energy during the Texas snowstorm in mid-February, to the use of drones in an increasingly virtual solar landscape.
Like most home services companies, solar energy is characterized by its hands-on, boots on the ground approach. Prior to the pandemic, most, if not all solar consultations were conducted in-person, and few contractors would have ever dreamed of surveying a job site from their computer screen some miles away. Addressing the sudden shift in how business got done, and the accompanying employee burnout became a top priority for Joanie Brooke, Vice President of Operations at commercial solar provider Borrego Solar Systems.
“2020 was an exhausting year for everybody,” Brooke said. “We really had to focus this year on things like burnout, managing change for our employees and our customers, making accommodations like remote working skill sets for 300 employees, and a lot of work went into modifying our field practices working around natural human nature.”
Scanifly CEO Jason Steinberg mentioned similar roadblocks from a manufacturing perspective. “I’d say March through May  was fascinating from an unfortunate standpoint to watch which parts of the world and the country went into lockdown, and which states considered solar contractors essential workers or not.” Many of Scanifly’s customers (solar installation customers) found some initial success with remote selling either over the phone or via video call; but remote surveying, a key step in the solar installation process, got off to a much rockier start.
In addition to the consultation, design, and survey phases, COVID-19 also seriously affected the installation phase. “Our [installation teams] work pretty closely together in tight groups,” said Mike Garofalo, VP of Operations at utility solar provider CS Energy. “We tried to keep them spaced out as much as possible and provide them with masks and PPE.” Garofalo explained that installation teams had to take greater pains to plan out exactly where they were going to work, how they would keep crews spaced out to mitigate potential spread of the disease. This idea spread to other areas of the work site, according to Brooke, who reported some of “the cleanest construction sites” she had ever seen thanks to the pandemic.
The fact that customers have been so resilient and able to make a decision about purchasing a system over a Zoom call blew me away!” — Bret Biggart, Freedom Solar Power CEO
Administrative workers were also given the option to work from home, which provided the unexpected benefit of easing non-work burdens and responsibilities. “That flexibility really helped our employees get through the personal side of the pandemic,” he said. And with the introduction video conferencing between installation crews and project managers, communication has never been better.
The leap to virtual conferencing was just as important for the residential solar industry, according to Bret Biggart, CEO of Texas-based Freedom Solar Power. “The part of our business that was changed for the better had to do with how we interact with customers. A year ago, we were very much of the school of thought that you had to sit down with someone and have a face-to-face meeting and develop a rapport to sell a [solar panel] system. Today, 50 percent of our appointments are now set virtually. The fact that customers have been so resilient and able to make a decision about purchasing a system over a Zoom call blew me away!”
The ability to make an informed decision via virtual means was not the only surprising quality customers demonstrated over the past year. Biggart went on to say how the pandemic has affected key drivers in the solar adoption process. “What’s been really cool is to see the evolution of what drives peoples’ decision making [regarding solar energy]. Ten years ago, people were very driven by this return profile that had to be met: ‘Show me the ROI, and then I’ll make a decision based on that.’ But in the past year we’ve seen this strange shift in the way people think about their role on this planet. People feel obligated to do what they can to make this planet a little better place as a result of this pandemic and how they consume electricity.”
"During the pandemic, our existing customers and new customers realized they could grow their businesses with social distancing in mind." — Jason Steinberg, Scanifly CEO
The positive momentum drawn from consumer confidence in the solar industry has only been aided by the deft application of technology. “One thing we’re investing in as a consequence of coronavirus is construction software and how we can build out that software that we’re using in the field to have better communication between the field and the office, because if we have better communication we can better deliver what our customers are asking for.”
And not only has technology allowed solar companies to be better able to deliver on customer expectations, it’s actually helped them serve a greater volume of customers without sacrificing quality, said Biggart. “From an appointment-setting standpoint, our business is about efficiency. Whether we’re selling a system or installing it, how quick can we make that happen while still providing a good customer experience?”
Logistically, video conferencing has allowed Freedom Solar Power’s energy consultants to double or even triple the average number of appointments they were fulfilling prior to the pandemic because they no longer need to travel to the physical site.
The pandemic has presented solar technologists with an opportunity to innovate as well. “During the pandemic,” said Steinberg, “our existing customers and new customers realized they could grow their businesses with social distancing in mind. We’ve seen an increased focus on automation and efficiency, and part of that is using drones to do that for them. You can do a drone survey [of a roof] in the same amount of time it takes to set up your ladder let alone going on the roof and taking all the measurements by hand.”
Customers who were at first lukewarm about the idea of conducting drone surveys gave it a chance in the name of social distancing, and now realize they can complete “three to five times more surveys in a given day — and with the accuracy that the homeowner has come to expect.”
Drone technology has also informed some backend processes. “We’ve been using drones for commissioning and O&M [operations and maintenance] services,” said Brooke, adding that drones have helped employees with travel limitations to better benchmark and monitor the progress of any given solar project as drones give them the ability to inspect arrays in real-time.
Technology has aided the post-installation process as well. “From the field inspection side, things have been pretty good,” said Garofalo. “We’ve had great success with submitting photos [of completed arrays] or scheduling inspections during off-peak work hours or after business hours, working with the inspectors for when they felt safe to come out. We’ve seen very few issues from a field inspection standpoint.”
In spite of the record increase in solar adoption in 2020, propelled by a late Q4 push during the last six to eight weeks of the year, the industry still has plenty of red tape to deal with, most notably the permitting process for new solar builds. The permitting stage is vital to the solar installation process, and has been equally frustrating for providers and citizens alike, sometimes taking weeks, even months to clear. Due to outdated systems, the pandemic severely hampered the solar permitting and inspection processes, causing delays in interconnection and accompanying utility savings.
“There’s always complaints about the permitting process,” said Garofalo. “Getting an actual permit has always been a struggle and continues to be a struggle [during the pandemic]. Some agencies allow electronic submission, but others still require a hard copy — but they’re not working in the office, so you try to navigate when you can drop that copy off and when the person can pick it up. A lot of towns and counties have switched to virtual board meetings [to approve permits], so from that standpoint things have been good. It’s just securing the construction permits that continues to be a struggle.”
“It’s a mixed bag,” said Biggart. “We’re working toward an evolution to make things easier, a more automated process where we can have a quick turnaround on permitting stuff. But the general consensus with regards to permitting is that it’s frustrating. The bigger the bureaucracy [in a jurisdiction] the more painful the process has been. But I think that we’re going to see more and more pressure — in Texas for sure, given what has happened in the last week — in the form of some legislative action to make [the permitting process] quicker.
Although 2020 threw its fair share of proverbial wrenches into the solar industry, companies have converted those wrenches into effective tools that make the outlook for 2021 and beyond a positive one. The experts agree that the increasing number of solar providers and financing companies will improve competition in the solar market, and ultimately drive prices down for consumers.
Solar power has never been more affordable than it is now, nor have potential solar customers been more informed on how solar helps the environment. Solar energy in many markets still represents a fringe energy source; but as companies and government entities continue to embrace new technologies and adapt to the ever-changing social climate, we may find solar power quickly working its way into the mainstream.