There’s no question about residential solar’s popularity but commercial systems larger than 15kW are still something of a novelty on rooftops of businesses around Australia. EcoGeneration asked two of the major players in the commercial and industrial PV sector how they get the message across.

According to data from solar consultancy SunWiz, Origin delivered 72MW of solar projects in the 12 months to June 30, with 18% of them – nearly 13MW – being systems larger than 15kW.

AGL delivered 11MW over the same period, almost all of it (98.8%) systems larger than 15kW. Solgen, bought by AGL in March, delivered 12.8MW of systems, 98.6% of that above 15kW.

AGL’s acquisition of Solgen and Epho, another C&I solar company, will most probably see the company become the largest C&I installer by a wide margin. SunWiz data for the Small-scale Technology Certificate and Large-scale Generation Certificate markets combined has Origin in second place, Solgen third and Epho eighth.

Origin general manager business energy and energy services Amber Fennell and AGL general manager commercial and industrial customers Ryan Warburton see a busy market that is only somewhat constrained by available talent.

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?

Amber Fennell, Origin: We see more customers turning to solar to support their business’s sustainability objectives and not merely viewing investment in solar as a cost-saving measure. Our customers, like many Australian businesses, are looking at solar but also how they can use other products in combination, such as storage, power factor correction, green energy and carbon offsets to achieve their goals. 

Ryan Warburton, AGL: Our C&I customers are motivated to reduce energy costs and take control through investments in solar and batteries to optimise energy management and business operations. The energy transition is driven by customer demand, community expectations and the evolution of technology, and we are seeing these forces influence change and our customers are leading that change.

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

Origin recently installed a 600kW system on the Griffith Central shopping centre in NSW’s Riverina region, the town’s largest solar array.

Fennell, Origin: Generally, we find the market is very knowledgeable around solar and its benefits. Customer conversations tend to centre on system quality, financing and after sales support – all of which are a focus for Origin. We also complete detailed bill and consumption analyses, so they have a clear picture of potential savings and payback periods.

Warburton, AGL: We work closely with customers throughout the concept, engineering and execution phases to ensure they fully understand the capabilities and limitations of solar systems and battery storage. Our team assists them in understanding energy consumption from the system, the interaction and export to the grid and importantly the investment case and return on investment. We recommend leading design practices, ways for customers to monitor their systems and track performance, as well as educating customers on product warranties and how they can verify savings with cost/benefits calculations on their installed systems.

What size systems are most popular and why?

Fennell, Origin: This tends to vary dependant on customer requirements and the physical characteristics of their premises. Origin services the full spectrum of C&I customers and has installed solar systems that range in size from 15kW through to several megawatts.

Warburton, AGL: For AGL’s business customers, the 99kWp is the most popular system as it attracts the largest STC rebate, acting as a discount on the overall price for the customer. Moving forward, we anticipate that systems eligible for VEECs will increase in popularity. This is because the price for VEECs has increased significantly in comparison to LGC prices, which in turn significantly subsidizes the cost of installing solar for large commercial energy consumers in Victoria. We are seeing an increase in larger systems across the market that include bespoke micro-grids and hybrid systems to address industrial customers

Can you keep up with demand?

Fennell, Origin: Having a well-resourced team including pre-sales engineers, design engineers, project managers, a national network of prequalified installation partners as well as inhouse field quality supervisors and HS&E specialists helps us keep on top of demand.

Warburton, AGL: Following AGL’s acquisitions of Solgen and Epho earlier in the year, we have the largest integrated commercial solar business in the market and are well placed to meet market and customer needs across commercial solar, energy storage, stand-alone power systems and microgrids.

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?

AGL won a CEC Solar Award last year for this car park in South Australia.

Fennell, Origin: Consumer protections should be a key consideration with market movements and consolidation. We’ve often seen customers left high and dry following merger and acquisition activity in the C&I solar space. This impacts on customer confidence when they ask themselves whether their solar installer will be around 10-plus years to honour a warranty.

Warburton, AGL: We believe reputation is a key factor in decision-marking and we favour working with business similar to those we have worked with before. For buyers, we understand price is an important consideration, however there are other factors to consider such as equipment quality, warranties, project timelines, company reputation, value proposition and customer experience. The standard industry practices, safety, quality, warranties and the reputation of equipment are three non-negotiables.

Are there enough skilled installers?

Fennell, Origin: The availability of properly trained solar installers remains a challenge for our sector. While there are lots of companies out there who can install solar, finding ones to deliver high-quality work and maintain safety standards can be challenging. Origin has a stringent vetting process and training program to ensure high quality and safety standards.

Warburton, AGL: Prior to the acquisitions of Solgen and Epho, AGL had achieved significant growth in this part of our business over recent years, offering our business customers a range of options including solar installations, energy storage, microgrids, stand-alone power systems and other energy efficient technologies.

What type of storage projects have you been working on?

Fennell, Origin: We’re seeing increasing levels of interest in storage solutions with our customers seeking batteries that can assist with optimising solar self-consumption and demand management, right through to ones that are able to participate in the market. Our battery modelling expertise coupled with our commercial and technical experience means we’re able to understand our customers’ objectives and deliver and install optimal storage solutions.

Warburton, AGL: We have recently completed installation works across central Australia to install more than 50 off-grid battery storage systems with ground mounted solar PV arrays. These systems have been rolled out over the past two years. Currently in that region we are constructing a microgrid that spans 6km to multiple supply locations. In Western Australia, we have been working on a project to deliver stand-alone power systems with battery, gensets and ground-mounted solar PV systems. As part of a community roll-out program, we are undertaking several smaller SME projects that involved providing batteries and solar PV panels to local communities.