In theory, you might already understand how photovoltaic (PV) solar systems work—silicon panels capture sunlight and turn it into electricity. But now that your organization has finally been talking about using solar power for business, you need to know exactly how solar systems work in real life. In other words: How do you know where to begin? What’s involved when you’re planning for solar power? Do you know how to get commercial solar panels installed?
Those are all great questions. And here are some answers about the pre-construction phase, when you’re thinking about solar panel installation so you can start benefiting your business. This is what takes place before any solar panels arrive. (Keep in mind that this is a general guide. Not all of these steps will apply to 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 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 about 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 anticipate potential objections from key stakeholders. At the same time, they’ll explain which solar power incentives can make your project more affordable, including net metering.
- The audit team shows up: Your audit “team” might actually be just one person. But whether it’s one or many, these experts handle the details of figuring out how to go solar—specifically, how to connect your solar system to the local utility grid. They’ll want to know 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, such as gas generators? Is there physical space in your current electrical equipment to connect 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 you do any work. Or, they might suggest one of the other two main options—installing your solar system on the ground or building a solar carport.
- The design phase begins: The solar company’s engineers will create a schematic to illustrate what your specific solar panel installation design will look like. It will show how many panels you need for your power load and how you should position them. The schematic will also show what equipment upgrades you might need to make in order to accommodate the system. At this point, you might also consider the potential value of an energy storage system that could reduce the overall cost of solar. Either way, expect a lot of back-and-forth discussion with the audit team as you work through all the details.
- The project manager steps in: Early in the process, your solar provider will designate a point person who can answer questions and keep the project rolling. This project manager will handle tasks such as dealing with applications, permits, utilities and paperwork. It’s their job to keep all the parties updated.
- Apply to the utility: After the design is ready, the project team will seek approval from all the necessary entities—such as the local government or power company—to obtain any permits required for your solar system. 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 that is usually relatively small (in the hundreds of dollars). However, exceptionally large systems or complex interconnections can cause these costs to rise.
- Find out about upgrades: The utility will want 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. Much of their older equipment was designed to send electricity only one way—to the consumer. Most utilities are ready to connect solar systems to the grid, but some drag their feet. Yours might expect you to help pay for any required upgrades to their equipment. Most upgrades are small, when they happen at all. But some can be large and expensive, potentially impacting the upfront costs of your project. And the bigger the solar project, the more likely upgrades will be needed. Fortunately, there are often ways to work around most upgrades.
- Obtain approval: You either don’t need any equipment upgrades from the utility or the ones you do need are acceptable. The utility likes your plan, you like your plan and the solar panel provider likes your plan. That means 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 approvals 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 everyone involved understands that going solar is a process, not a one-time event—it typically requires eight relatively substantial steps. The good news is that once you’ve completed these steps, much of the hardest work is already done. And your organization will soon be ready to start using solar power for business.