In theory, you understand how photovoltaic (PV) solar systems work—silicon panels capture sunlight and turn it into electricity. But now you've finally got your organization talking about using solar power for business, so you need to know exactly how solar systems work in real life—i.e., What's it take to get solar panel installation rolling? How do you get commercial solar panels installed? What all's involved in planning for solar power?
Good questions. And the answers are not always obvious or easy to find. So here's a rundown on the pre-construction phase when your organization is working out how to get commercial solar panels installed. This is the stuff that takes place before any solar panels arrive. (Keep in mind that this is a general guide. Not all these steps will be followed in every situation.)
- Call the solar company: There are many solar companies, and you should find the ones with a successful track record of solar panel installation. Ask around at organizations that have started using solar power for business recently, and don't hesitate to ask the solar companies themselves for references. On the other hand, don't expect to get an exact price quote or too many specifics right way. The company isn't being dodgy—every installation is unique.
- The company rep arrives: The solar panel provider will send a representative to do a preliminary inspection. They'll talk over your current and future energy needs while inspecting your facilities (and probably taking a lot of photos). They're also going to need some specifics on your "load profile"—how much energy you use and when you use it. This representative should be able to tell you if there are any insurmountable obstacles, like a poor site location, and discuss possible objections by stakeholders. At the same time, they'll show what incentives are out there that can make the project less expensive, including net metering. Usually, any problems can be worked out in the next step—your solar audit.
- The audit team shows up: Your "team" may just be one person. But whether it's one on many, these experts do the nitty-gritty work of figuring out how to go solar—specifically, how to connect your solar system to the local utility grid. They'll want to know things like what equipment you have. Does the proposed site for your solar array get enough sun exposure? If not, is there another site that will work? Do you already have other types of power generation like gas generators? Is there physical space in your current electrical equipment to tie in a PV solar system to your electrical system? They'll also take a close look at your roof (assuming that's where the panels go). If your roof is old or in bad shape, they'll recommend replacing it before any work is done. Or, they may suggest one of the other two main options—installing your solar system on the ground or building a solar carport.
- Design phase: The solar company's engineers will make a schematic to illustrate how your specific solar installation should be designed. It will show how many panels will be needed for your power load and how they should be sited. It will also let you know what equipment upgrades might be needed on your end to accommodate the system. Expect a lot of back and forth with the audit team on your solar design as the details are worked out.
- The project manager steps in: Early in the process, your solar provider will designate a point person who can answer questions and will keep the project rolling. This project manager will handle things like applications, permitting, dealing with utilities, and paperwork in general. It will be their job to keep all the parties updated.
- Apply to the utility: Once the design gets settled, the project team will apply to all the necessary entities (local government, power company, etc.) for approval to build your solar system—obtaining any required permits. The solar provider will also present a schematic to the utility showing how your system will work. The power company is likely to charge an application fee. It's usually small—in the hundreds of dollars. Exceptionally large systems or complex interconnections can cause these costs to go up.
- Find out about upgrades: In your application, the utility will be looking to make sure nothing in your plan endangers their infrastructure. Keep in mind that you're making an addition to the U.S. electrical grid, perhaps the most complicated mechanical system in the world. Most of their old equipment was designed to send electricity one way—to the consumer. Most utilities are ready to connect solar to the grid, but some drag their feet. Yours may expect you to help them pay for upgrades to their equipment. Most of these upgrades are small, when they happen at all. But some can be large and expensive. And the bigger the solar project, the more likely upgrades will be needed. Again, watch out here for delays. But fortunately, there are often ways to work around most upgrades.
- Approval: You either don't have any equipment upgrades from the utility or the ones you do have are acceptable. The utility likes your plan, you like your plan, and the solar panel provider likes your plan. It's a go. The construction phase can begin.
It's natural to wonder how long this process takes. Count on at least six months to a year. Some parts of the project will take longer than others. For instance, dealing with upgrades and getting approval can take weeks or months.
The bottom line: don't expect to be able to get a solar system up and running for your organization in just a few days or weeks. It's going to take some time. You'll need to make sure that everyone involved understands that going solar is a process, not an event—requiring eight relatively substantial steps before shovels ever hit the dirt. The good news is that once you're through all these steps, much of the hardest work is done.