Conditions are ripe for solar companies that can design and install large PV systems to make a fair bit of hay helping commercial and industrial clients harvest the energy of the sun.

Whereas rooftop systems are a common sight around the suburbs, however, the flat, white hectares of iron that keep the rain off Australian businesses are mostly devoid of purple panels. But word is spreading and business managers are starting to commit to solar in their efforts to cut energy costs and decarbonise their operations.

It takes skill and experience to confidently deliver PV systems larger than 15kW day after day, so EcoGeneration asked two firms that serve large energy users how they approach a market that may be sceptical here and there but is otherwise growing fast.

According to data from solar consultancy SunWiz, Energy Aware delivered 6.8MW of solar projects in the 12 months to June 30, with 90% of them being systems larger than 15kW.

Queensland-based Meridian Solar delivered 4.96MW of systems over 15kW over the same period.

Meridian Solar director electrical Kale Fogg and Energy Aware manager commercial and strategy Michael Lipson describe a market where, although the buyers are sophisticated about their energy use to a point, solar specialists can offer custom applications that will get the green light.

It looks as though it will be a record year for C&I solar. What problems do your customers want you to solve and where have they heard about what solar can do?

Michael Lipson says Energy Aware has been helping clients achieve higher NABERS ratings.

Michael Lipson, Energy Aware: It depends on what they want to achieve. They may want to lower the cost of their energy bills, achieve a particular NABERS rating or create an additional revenue stream. It depends the type of company you are dealing with. The main focus is usually lowering the cost of power. If it’s related to achieving a better NABERS rating if can be for a new-build project or retrofitted. Solar will go a long way to achieving that but there are other means by which you can boost your NABERS rating too.

Kale Fogg, Meridian Solar: Growth in C&I solar installations reflects the broader movement towards sustainability in private companies and a greater understanding that solar is a reliable, cost-effective and proven way for businesses to not only meet their sustainability objectives but achieve significant operational efficiencies and cost savings. 

We think the market will thrive in the coming years given the relatively quick payback periods customers are seeing – it really is a no-brainer for commercial customers who are largely operational during optimal production periods.

What are some things you have to explain to clients about solar?

Lipson, Energy Aware: When we’re talking to our clients around solar we’re discussing how much power the panels can generate and how that will offset the amount of power they are using throughout the day. Ultimately, they want to know how that will affect their bottom line and how much they will save. We have discussions around the government rebates associated with solar and the equipment – the panels, inverters and batteries – and we talk about the environmental benefits. We often have to explain what it means to match load profile with solar generation.

Fogg, Meridian Solar: Our customers are generally very knowledgable about feed-in rates and rebates but tend to forget that the greatest benefit of installing a PV system is around using the power that is generated from systems before it is exported to the grid.  

We analyse a customer’s consumption and estimated site production to design a customised system that maximises their output. Being able to effectively communicate a clear payback period and pricing of commercial systems has been imperative for our customers. 

Do you ever help them work out where they can save energy?

Fogg, Meridian Solar: Sustainability goes beyond installing a solar system and we’re always working with our customers to identify opportunities for them to maximise the performance of their system and increase their returns – whether it be assessing the operating hours of certain equipment, changing staff habits or identifying inefficient practices. 

Our customers gain greater control and visibility of their operations through our monitoring software, which shows daily production and savings. It helps them match their high consumption activities with peak production times and seek opportunities to maximise returns.  

What size systems are most popular and why?

An 80kW school project delivered by Meridian Solar.

Lipson, Energy Aware: Probably 100kW, to be eligible for small-scale technology certificates. If we start with 100kW it allows them to dip their toe in the water to see if they are comfortable. If they are happy with the way the system is operating they will look to expand on that. We’ve delivered projects where more than one 100kW system are connected to separate meters, but it’s very site-specific.

Fogg, Meridian Solar: System size really comes down to each site and is based on our customers’ requirements but generally we’re seeing 15-39kW meeting the needs of smaller businesses and 80kW-plus installations for larger operators. Understanding price points and payback periods as well as secondary protections, safety and other compliance costs is important so we can customise the most effective solar solution for customers. 

Can you keep up with demand?

Lipson, Energy Aware: It can be challenging, particularly in the second half of the calendar year. Most of our clients tend to move on things in the second half of the year, and that’s when demand can be challenging. But we’re managing OK. Generally, they get capex approved at the end of the financial year and then it depends on how they want to spend their money.

Fogg, Meridian Solar: We have a network of installers we have been able to scale to meet the growing demand for C&I solar. Having worked on largely state government, local council and global business projects, our team has significant experience with safety protocols and compliance requirements to deliver at scale. 

Are there enough skilled installers?

Lipson, Energy Aware: We have a select network of installers throughout the country we’ve been working with for quite some time. We’ve been in the business about 12 years and a lot of the hard work [finding installers] was done in the early days. Over the past six or seven years we’ve developed good working relationships with guys we trust.

Fogg, Meridian Solar: Yes and no. In metro areas there are installers who are highly trained and deliver quality installs, but as demand in this space keeps growing we are seeing many residential installers switching to perform commercial installs who aren’t necessarily across all quality and compliance standards that are required. 

With large regional scope in many of our projects, we have also found a lack of installers with the appropriate level of commercial experience, so many times we have relocated metro teams to ensure our quality standards are met. Building up a network of highly skilled and experienced delivery teams has been core to our business, particularly in these regional areas. 

What type of storage projects have you been working on?

Energy Aware’s job for Visy in Adelaide included 216kW/348/kWh of storage connected to more than 2MW of PV.

Lipson, Energy Aware: Our largest storage project was for Visy in Adelaide, a 2.136MW solar system with 216kW/348kWh of Tesla Powerpacks. Others have included shopping centres, community and sports hubs, manufacturing, petrol stations – a bit of a range. It’s better suited to the 24-hour users. They generally charge the battery throughout the day with solar and drawdown throughout the night, to power their operations.

Fogg, Meridian Solar: We’re seeing growth in this space, however battery storage has not been in the scope for the projects we having been working on. As new programs arise we always communicate to customers the cost/benefit of installing batteries but it really needs to line up with their peak operating times and show how it will benefit their circumstances.

Do your customers see value in storage at current prices?

Lipson, Energy Aware: Generally not, but for some of the larger sites we’ve installed storage at the client, with our help, has been able to secure government funding for batteries. Some other clients know they are going to be at a site long-term regardless, so they are happy to bite the bullet now and get it done. Other times, at greenfield sites a lot of the time batteries are spec’d into the build.

Consolidation is picking up in the C&I sector. If you were a buyer, what would you look for? If you approached, what would you be flexible about and what would be non-negotiable?

Lipson, Energy Aware: We’re not for sale and we’re not looking to buy.

Kale Fogg says there’s nothing wrong with consolidation in the C&I solar sector, so long as warranties and O&M contracts are honoured.

Fogg, Meridian Solar: As we see many companies being bought and absorbed by a larger one or simply amalgamating in partnerships, consumers are always cautious of whether their warranties will still be valid for the specified time due to the companies being around. My advice is always to go with a company that has been established for numerous years with a reputable name in the business. Also, it helps when their client list includes either large businesses or governments as this generally will show the business’s intent to continue to service those clients.

How could manufacturers better support C&I solar installers?

Fogg, Meridian Solar: Due to our volume we have been looked after really well by companies such as SolarEdge, who have given us really good technical resources and also over the years and have actually drastically built up their technical advisor staff. In the early days installers were having issues with getting technical support and lost time of site waiting for call-back, etc. This has become a thing of the past and they’ve been given very quick and prompt response. Companies should spend the time educating themselves and installers on these products so they better understand the product, which in turn will drastically decrease their time on site fault-finding any issues that may arise.