Simpler, Faster, Cheaper. New Solar Racking Leapfrogs Solar Tariffs

March 21, 2018


More reasons why Trump/Putin/Republicans want to do away with renewable energy research. (see below)

Technology and ingenuity can be tools of, or a weapons against, tyranny.
Perfect example showing simple tech improvements can leverage dramatic cost reductions.

Triple Pundit:

Solar energy fans haven’t had much to cheer about during the Trump Administration, especially after the President’s recent imposition of tariffs on steel and solar panels. Nevertheless, some analysts see healthy demand persisting in the US solar market. That’s partly due to keen interest on the part of US businesses eager to polish their green cred with renewable energy.

Demand could even pass expectations if the cost of installing solar panels continues to drop, helping to offset negative effects from the new tariffs. In one recent development on that score, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been testing a new installation system that could keep pushing down the cost of ground-mounted solar farms. That adds more weight to the argument that now is still a good time to invest in a solar installation, tariff or not.

The soft costs of solar energy

Analysts have pointed out that Trump’s new solar tariff only impacts the “hard” cost of solar energy, namely, the panels themselves. “Soft” costs account for much of the overall cost of a new solar installation. That can include anything from marketing and administration to transportation, permitting and labor costs. So, at least theoretically a savings on soft costs could offset any upward movement on hard costs.

One place where hard and soft costs intersect is the racking system needed to position solar panels on the ground or on a rooftop. These systems are generally made of steel, and that could be impacted by the new Trump tariff on imported steel. If the new racking system being tested at NREL pans out, though, labor and associated costs could drop significantly — and the steel tariff would be a moot issue, too.

A new solar racking system

The new racking system is being developed by the startup Powerfield. The system is designed to overcome three main hurdles.

First, the racks are lightweight, which could mean a significant savings on the cost of materials as well as transportation. Instead of the conventional “Erector Set” system of steel mounted in a concrete base, the system is composed of plastic shaped in a large U. To keep them in place, the plastic shapes are filled with several hundred pounds of any available material, such as sand, dirt or rocks.

If that sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the temporary plastic traffic barriers that can be hauled into place and filled with water for stability, then drained for transportation elsewhere. Powerfield anticipates that between ease of setup and transportability, its new racking system could be used for disaster relief and other temporary installations as well as permanent sites.

With the use of plastic, the new system circumvents the impact of the new steel tariff. In addition, it opens up the potential for using recycled or reclaimed material, including construction debris as well as plastic feedstock.

The second advantage is that the new racks can be installed rapidly without specialized equipment such as pile drivers or concrete mixers. Without the need for a dug foundation, the system could also help simplify the permitting process, which would also help to manage costs.

And third, the solar panels attach to the rack with a proprietary clipping system that requires no special tools or training. That opens the door for community groups and other non-profits to recruit volunteers to install solar energy projects.

The Powerfield system took about a year to bring to the testing stage, which NREL expects to last about six months. In one recent trial, the lab deployed a crew of six inexperienced workers to install 56 panels. The entire exercise took under five hours, and Powerfield anticipates event that time could be shortened.

The next steps include determining exactly how much weight is needed to resist a “worst case scenario” 120-mile-per-hour winds, and analyzing the performance of the solar panels in the new rack.

How low can solar energy go?

Some solar energy analysts have observed that solar companies had ample time to prepare for the new tariff, enabling them to cushion customers from extreme price shocks.

In addition, state-level actions and utility initiatives could have a greater impact on the installed cost of solar energy, though in some cases those actions are designed to push costs up.

Either way, Forbes contributor Ken Silverstein recently noted that the installed cost of utility scale solar energy has dropped 86% since 2009, and the cost of smaller installations has also fallen sharply. In other words, a slight uptick in costs would not necessarily dissuade companies from investing in solar.

National Renewable Energy Lab:

Drew Bond, the president and CEO of Powerfield, describes traditional steel frames for solar panels as a “big erector set of steel framework” designed to keep the solar panel in place during heavy wind and bad weather. These are typically either pile-driven into the ground or installed in concrete-filled holes. But Powerfield’s ground-mounted frames require no digging, concrete, steel, or “any of the elaborate erector set materials that come with solar panel installation,” says Bond. Installing the company’s U-shaped solar container—made of a lightweight, heavy-duty plastic—only requires a few hundred pounds of a heavy, natural material like sand, dirt, or rocks. Once the container is sufficiently weighted, the solar panel clips into place using a proprietary technique that promises to keep the panel still during strong winds of 120 miles per hour or more.

“What you see is what you get,” Bond says. “No nuts and bolts and no tools.”

Powerfield’s invention harkens back to the early days of Silicon Valley. David Flory, one of the company’s co-founders, previously financed large-scale solar farms through AES Solar. After a project fell through because of a complex installation process, he found himself frustrated.

“He just said, ‘There’s got to be an easier way,’” says Bond.

Flory hunkered down in his garage with Paul Burdick, a former colleague, and they began work on what would eventually become Powerfield’s inventive new frameworks.

“He was being very secretive about it, but I finally got him to show me what he had,” says Bond. “I said, ‘David, this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s so simple.’”

In fact, the concept seemed so basic that the Powerfield team worried that someone already must have developed it. But after discussions with investors and industry, they realized their idea was truly revolutionary. That was a year ago. Now—about 20 prototypes, “trial and failure, engineering and analysis, and every engineering word you can pull out of the book” later—they’ve finalized their design.

“It’s as easy as advertised,” Bond says.

The Powerfield team’s innovation allows for rapid solar deployment. At the NWTC, an inexperienced six-person crew installed 56 panels in less than five hours. “And I’m confident we can cut that time in half,” says Bond. One of his advisers, for example, once spent two days installing four solar panels with a large, skilled crew.

While the frames are sturdy enough to survive intense winds, they’re also portable. Empty, the containers weigh just 17 pounds and are designed to stack and nest for easy transportation. They can also be emptied and moved to another location. This provides unique benefits for specific markets, such as in Puerto Rico or for environmental cleanup or military applications.

The simplicity also eases the permitting process. Because teams won’t be digging holes or pouring concrete, it makes the process “simpler, smoother, and more versatile,” says Bond.

Denver Post:

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is putting a target on renewable energy research, and a federal laboratory in Golden that has been a longtime pioneer in solar, wind and biofuel technologies could be in the bull’s-eye of its proposed budget cuts.

According to a 2019 budget plan obtained by The Washington Post, the White House wants to slash funding at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy — a division of the U.S. Department of Energy — from its current level of about $2 billion to $575.5 million.

If the cut goes forward, it would weaken the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, the agency’s primary facility for this kind of research. Currently, the laboratory employs about 1,700 workers and hundreds of contractors, interns and visiting researchers, who all contribute to the facility’s mission of developing alternatives to fossil fuels.

It’s not the first time President Donald Trump has suggested deep cuts to renewable energy research. His 2018 budget plan proposed a similar reduction. Nor is it automatic, as Congress has a big say and there remains bipartisan resistance to the idea, including from U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.


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