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Sep 7, 2012  | Tom Cheyney  | 7 Comments

Solar installer on a mission

Run on Sun’s blog teases out CSI data

Jim Jenal is not your typical NABCEP-certified solar installer. The CEO of Run on Sun, a Pasadena, CA-based residential and commercial integrator, gave up a successful law practice to start his company in September 2006. Before he took up lawyering, he spent time as a researcher at Bell Labs and as a high school math and computer science teacher. These days, when he’s not up on the roof, he might be using social media (he has more than 15,500 followers on Twitter), blogging on his company’s Website, or enjoying the refreshing subtleties of a well-poured craft beer. In fact, it was over pints and pub-grub that I first met Jim, wearing his signature Run on Sun baseball cap, at the inaugural Los Angeles Tweetup earlier this year.

Few “corporate” content sites offer as much useful information and informed analyses as Jim’s “Thoughts on Solar” blog, and his recently posted “State of SoCal Solar 2012” three-parter raises the bar to an even higher level than usual. For the second year in a row, he has parsed residential and commercial solar project data from the California Solar Initiative (CSI) for the first six months of the year, focusing on the Southern California Edison service area. Although representing a regional microcosm of the total solar installation story, Jim’s deep dive provides a pro-bono public service to the photovoltaic community—and it’s not without its surprises.

The first installment of the blog series presents his methodology and a general overview of the number, size, average cost per watt (AC watt, not DC), and other statistics from the 9,669 projects recorded over the course of the period. Turns out that the total number of projects is well up from the first six months of 2011, but the average size of those installations is down. He also looked at whether the size of the system correlates to the cost, i.e., the bigger the array, the smaller the cost per watt. His findings: yes, the correlation holds, but not as significantly as in the 2011 time frame.

A dapper Jim Jenal sans his usual ballcap and jeans.

The meaty second part, with its kicker headline “Who’s Hot and Who’s Not,” drills down into which module makers and inverter manufacturers lead the way, and the installation companies’ choices. He separates the data into the top firms in both the residential and commercial sectors, by percentage of sales and percentage of projects. Of the 97 different panel firms mentioned by the CSI report, 15 accounted for >1% of the total of the 228,372 units recorded as sold. Topping that list are SunPower and Yingli (with up-and-comer LG grabbing fifth), accounting for 37%, with Yingli’s 235LP panel the leading seller. He also pulls out the numbers of leased versus cash purchase systems. In the commercial rankings, Yingli and SunPower placed second and fourth, with Suntech leading the pack; SunPower’s 327NE was the only module model hitting the top five list for both the residential and commercial sectors. On the inverter side, SMA tops the residential list, followed by Enphase, while the commercial top 10 is led by Satcon, closely followed by SMA (especially when you factor in the SunPower numbers, which Jim points out are essentially private-branded SMA units).  In terms of popular module-inverter pairing, the SunPower double-whammy gets the gold, with 19.1% market share.

Jim’s analysis gets even more interesting when he examines the cost and efficiency numbers, from the black sheep to the white knights. The highest system cost per AC watt came in at a whopping $16.02 (!) for one brand of module used, but this was definitely an outlier, as the average across all systems was a more reasonable $6.23. As far as efficiency pairings of modules and inverters go—the ratio of CSI ratings divided by nameplate (STC)—the SunPower duo again tops the list at 84.38%. Jim points out that these comparisons rely on incomplete data, since crucial site-specific info like geographic location, azimuth, tilt, and shading are not factored into the calculations. But they do provide valuable equipment-based benchmark info. He also looks at what the top installers use, equipment wise, which shows that both market leader Verengo and the second largest, SolarCity, favored Yingli above all others.

The final blog, the many-layered “Outliers and Oddities,” delves into the average cost per installed watt charged by the leading installation/integration companies, as well as the average time it takes to install the systems once the contract is signed. He also came up with a new metric called “System Years of Delay,” or SYD, which essentially measures where the top installers fall compared to the average of 157 days. In Jim’s words, these data indicate “whether a company is propelling the overall solar industry forward, or dragging it backward.” Turns out Verengo gets its jobs done much quicker than the average, while SolarCity’s completions lag significantly behind the median project velocity. In the Oddities section of the piece, head scratching ensues when a rather unusual change in SolarCity’s pricing is discovered.

Comparison of average costs per installed watt from top SoCal installers.

I emailed Jim to get a bit more insight into the blogs, and not surprisingly, he left me a couple of brief voicemails direct from an installation job site. He told me that the “biggest surprise is how much Verengo’s share has grown compared to Solar City. They were pretty much even a year ago, and now they’re about 1800 to 1100 in the current data—that’s a pretty dramatic shift.” He also wishes the data included inverter efficiencies and shading numbers (do Enphase microinverters, a product he loves, work as well as he thinks they do?), instead of everything being “rolled up into just the design factor.” Another set of missing info he’d like to see involves the racking manufacturers and models, to determine “who’s using stuff made in America that’s been tested and who’s making Chinese knockoff stuff… that would be important data point to gather for overall quality assessment.” He signed off on his voicemail with what could be his tagline, “I gotta get back to the roof.”

The Curator strongly suggests that those interested in a granular look at one very healthy solar market set aside some time to read the Run on Sun SoCal solar blogs for yourself and enjoy a fascinating, sometimes eyebrow-raising, and thoroughly commendable exercise in separating some signal from the CSI noise. For those attending Solar Power International, seek out Jim Jenal to discuss his findings, since he will be “in the house” and likely attending the SolarChat Tweetup Wednesday night.


Sources: Run on Sun, CSI, SolarCurator

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