Installing solar PV systems on commercial or industrial property has become a commonplace practice, given that property investors generally look at the long-term value of their assets. Since solar provides consistent, affordable and clean energy over a 25 year lifetime, it is not surprising that commercial and industrial properties are investing in solar. However, given the flurry of investment, there are many solar system providers – and even more opinions around what is important when installing a solar system. Investing in solar PV is an incredible investment, if it is done correctly, but as someone specialising in property development, you might not know how to judge if a solar system will be done in a way that ensures optimal ROI (Return on Investment). In the following blog post, we explore 6 different questions that are essential to commercial and industrial property owners when going out to procure a solar system.
A beginners buying guide to C&I solar PV – the essential components
At its most essential, a solar PV system harnesses the energy of the sun and converts it into electricity for use. However, in terms of how this energy is harvested and when and where it is deployed, there are a range of variables that can significantly impact both the cost and the output of the system. The first step to understanding if your commercial property would benefit from solar is to understand your energy tariff. By doing this, you’ll be able to see if a typical solar tariff will beat what you’re currently paying. In order to find out the detailed costs and expected returns on a solar project for a commercial or industrial building, you would then need to commission a feasibility study, or solar proposal, that will show some basic figures on the return for your property.
There are a few essential components that should be covered in a solar feasibility proposal:
- The size of the system (DC) and the proposed output (kWh). This is a basic indication of how much power the solar system would output based on the size of your building. There are various different ways that this can be optimised – which will be explored later in the post.
- What the system will cost, given a comparative option of upfront capital cost (capex/ EPC cost) or a financed solar solution (PPA). This would show what the ROI would look like on various options and help you decide what is most relevant to your building and business model.
- If you have load data for your building or facility, a good feasibility study should include a load analysis. If no load data was provided, the study should explicitly say this, so that there is no confusion as to the accuracy of the figures in the proposal.
Once you have received a feasibility study on your commercial or industrial property, it is important to make an informed decision on the procurement of the system – and that’s where this article aims to help. The following 6 questions to ask when buying solar for commercial and industrial property should guide your thinking:
1. What is the optimum size of the system?
It may seem obvious, but the size of a solar system is one of the most key aspects of ensuring that solar PV works for your business. This is because there are several factors – such as operational requirements, roof space, reliance on diesel, etc., that all factor in to the optimal size for a PV system. When assessing a solar feasibility study, it is important to check that there is optimal configuration of the system design: that all components deliver their maximum value and make the system more efficient.
For example, you can get optimal value from solar inverters by making sure that they are not overloaded or operated outside of the manufacturers instructions. Similarly, solar modules might perform more efficiently if surrounded by a cool breeze. When assessing the property’s energy load profile, it also might add value to slightly oversize the system, or incorporate a small battery, in order to reduce the property’s demand charges (more on this later). By paying a slightly higher fee for the added components, the saving on demand costs could be significant, depending on the tariff structure and the building’s operations.
Value engineering will ensure that environmental factors, energy load, building design and component functionality are all taken into account to ensure the most efficient system size for your property and budget.
2. Will the system meet legal requirements?
This question is almost as obvious as the first question but it is one that is, surprisingly, often overlooked. There are a large amount of compliance and legal standards when it comes to installing a solar system, and in order to make sure they don’t have any legal hassles, commercial property owners need to make sure that the solar system provider will ensure compliance with all relevant requirements.
Compliance with legal perimeters changes in each country, so the service provider will need to be familiar with the requirements for each particular property location. In South Africa, the following basic compliance rules apply:
- Solar PV systems under 1 MW in size must have embedded generator approval from the relevant municipality
- In some municipalities you may be required to go through a building plan approval process, especially for carport or ground mounted installations
- For solar PV systems over 1 MW, the current legislation stipulates that these systems must have an electricity generation licence from Nersa (the National Energy Regulator of South Africa). However, it is expected that this process will become slightly easier for projects between 1 – 10 MW in the coming months
- If it is a battery coupled or off-grid system, it currently does not have to be registered, however this might change in the future depending on how Nersa regulations are updated going forward
- The system should also meet technical compliance standards. It is important, for example, that the system is compliant in terms of technical regulations for electricity connections – (NRS regulations 097-2-1 – grid connection of embedded systems). A qualified electrical engineer is needed to sign off on this.
- Structural compliance – ensure that the structural design of the system is signed off by a professional engineer (Pr Eng).
- Some PV installations may require additional regulatory approvals such as environmental impact assessments, rezoning, etc.
3. What do good quality components look like?
From just a simple Google search for solar panels, one will realise that there are a range of manufacturers out there, and trying to find the best quality vs price components can be daunting. The most important thing to evaluate when looking at the type and quality of components used in a solar system proposal is that the warranties and guarantees meet the requirements of the length of the investment. In terms of investing in a solar PV system for a commercial property, this usually means 20 to 25 years.
- Solar modules or solar panels form the basis of your investment. Generally, solar modules come with a 20 – 30 year performance guarantee. Mono-crystalline solar panels are typically more efficient than polycrystalline, but tend be be slightly more expensive. Also, make sure that you differentiate between performance guarantee (the guaranteed efficiency of the panel during its operational life) vs product guarantee (the manufacturing or workmanship guarantee on the panel itself).
- Inverters convert the DC electricity to AC and integrate this into the building’s energy supply. Typically, inverters carry a 5 – 10 year guarantee, which can be extended.
- Batteries are another component that you will want to ensure are of good quality, if they form part of your system. Remember that how batteries are managed will also ensure that they carry a longer life span. Battery technologies are advancing rapidly in terms of cost and robustness, and are now available with warranties in excess of 10 years.
- Also make sure that the feasibility costing includes provision for the installation of weather and monitoring instrumentation that will allow you to track the performance of the system over time.
4. How has the performance of the system been guaranteed in the short, medium, long term?
In addition to component guarantees, it is also useful to take note of overall guarantees of the system for the long, medium and short term. A solar system installer may have an overall efficiency measurement or performance ratio by which they guarantee the system. For example, they may measure the ratio between the total amount of available insolation (solar power) on your property’s site, vs the usable power coming out of the system (DC).
The solar proposal should also include a Internal Rate of Return or IRR. As those in the commercial and industrial property industry will be well aware, IRR is the rate of return on investment that will be achieved by investing capital in a solar asset, over the lifetime of that asset. IRR can also be calculated during a specific timeframe, for example, the first 10 years of a solar system’s lifespan.
When it comes to signing a financed solar system or a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with a solar solutions provider, IRR would not be relevant. Instead, the savings from solar energy would be calculated as a monthly operational saving, based on the expected tariff increases.
5. How will you measure ongoing performance and ROI on your solar system?
Like any asset, solar PV systems need ongoing care and maintenance in order to retain their optimal performance. When evaluating the purchase of a solar solution the provision and associated costs of Operations and Maintenance (O&M) is an essential component to consider.
Not only will investment in O&M diagnose any possible problems early through continual real-time monitoring, it will also ensure that the system continues to produce the predicted savings and ensure the overall financial case of the project.
When evaluating an O&M offering, make sure that there is regular reporting and site inspections and the option of accessing live data on the solar system, such as through a client portal. Keeping track of the solar system’s historical performance through regular reports will help you to look at the savings and ROI over time and to make more accurate predictions of future performance.
If your solar system is on a PPA, you will not be directly responsible for its ongoing maintenance and operations. However, you should still request ongoing reports to track your savings comparative to your alternative power options.
6. Will energy storage improve your solar system?
Although batteries have historically been expensive additions to solar PV systems, it is now essential to ask about energy storage when thinking about a solar system for your commercial or industrial property. The prices of batteries have rapidly decreased and often can ensure a more efficient use of the abundant solar resource. Whether you originally planned to include batteries in the system or not, it is worth asking about when evaluating a new solar proposal.
How could combining solar PV with batteries and/or generators improve the overall business case? It depends on your specific building and load profile – for example, peak shaving can help to push overall tariffs significantly lower and change the business payback of the solar PV system significantly. Similarly, for retail centres and remote industrial or mining properties, batteries can allow a totally islanded or microgrid solution.
That concludes our list of 6 questions to ask when installing solar PV on commercial and industrial property. Like any large asset, investing in a solar PV system requires careful decision-making and evaluation. If you have a commercial or industrial property that you are interested in converting to solar power, try our online feasibility tool.