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North Carolina Solar Power Trio

Michigan-based Applied Energy Technologies (AET) was able to meet the requirements of Germany-based BayWa r.e.'s first three solar installations in the U.S., with AET supplying the racking for some 23,000 panels on three North Carolina projects totaling

By Tony Kryzanowski

In the design of solar power arrays, the solar panel itself is like the prima ballerina who lives in the spotlight (or sunlight) and garners all the attention, while the racking system is like the dance partner who plays the critical role of supporting her pirouettes—but rarely receives similar recognition for its important role.

While this critical component of the solar array often takes a supporting role, quite literally, companies that build and supply racking systems are having a significant impact on economic growth—and job growth—in the U.S., along with associated solar-related companies. The International Renewable Energy Agency recently reported that in 2015, for the first time, there were more jobs in the U.S. solar energy industry than in oil and natural gas extraction.

American-based companies like Applied Energy Technologies (AET) are part of that success story. Headquartered in Michigan, with manufacturing facilities in Toledo, Ohio, AET is a division of the Applied Group Inc., which has extensive experience in the automotive racking industry. The company has parlayed that knowledge into building and supplying racking systems for the solar power industry. Today, AET is one of the top 10 solar racking system suppliers in the U.S., with distribution partners throughout the country.

While Aaron Faust, AET's vice president of business development, says the company's 'Made In America' tagline provides benefits on supply contracts for government projects, their participation in the growth of the country's renewable power infrastructure is playing to a much larger dialogue taking place among Americans, in terms of jobs. In the face of so many good manufacturing jobs moving offshore over the past 35 years, Americans have expressed a strong desire to develop new, homegrown industries that revitalize the manufacturing sector and provide jobs that pay well.

AET is one example of that happening as the renewable energy industry expands. While racking systems may not garner the spotlight like solar panels, they are probably the most critical component of any solar installation.

"Frankly, the racking system really could be considered the most critical component because we are holding the whole system together," says Faust. "We're holding all the panels up, which is the most expensive part of the system, and a lot of time we are holding the string inverters or the standard line inverters."

 
Applied Energy Technologies (AET) is a division of the Applied Group Inc., which has extensive experience in the automotive racking industry. The company has parlayed that knowledge into building and supplying racking systems for the solar power industry, for solar projects such as the three BayWa solar arrays in North Carolina. 
  

Not only must the racking system hold everything together, it must also withstand the elements for decades. However, Faust adds that the racking system is often "the last considered of all the components because the relative cost is so low compared to the panels and some of the larger components." That's the case even though it is typically the first component assembled on site, which results in significant manufacturing and delivery pressures on racking suppliers.

In addition to rarely being considered the project's 'belle of the ball', Faust says that the racking supplier also typically faces the biggest challenges as projects approach the finish line.

"No matter how well a project is planned out, there are always changes at the end, and we are always affected by those changes," says Faust. "So there's a lot of work that needs to be done at the tail end of projects, which we seem to be right in the middle of in most cases."

As an evolving industry, and given the critical nature of a solar array's racking system, one of the biggest ongoing challenges that companies like AET face on any solar power project is a lack of standardization of the various components.

"There is a lot of variance—it's difficult to keep up with it, and it's definitely an expense that we have to deal with," says Faust. "The industry could still use a lot of standardization. We are always trying to drive it toward that, but right now, it's not there."

The biggest challenge they face is in the various configurations of the solar panels themselves and how each interacts with the racking system.

Support for renewable power generation in America is not only creating a massive amount of new jobs, it is also attracting investment from companies like Germany-based, BayWa r.e. The company has recently developed three solar power projects in North Carolina.

 
 BayWa r.e. is a large multinational company with considerable experience developing renewable power projects in Europe. The company's first foray into America's renewable power sector was in wind power, but it has recently added solar power to its business focus, with the North Carolina solar projects.
  

BayWa r.e. is a large multinational company with considerable experience developing renewable power projects in Europe. The company's first foray into America's renewable power sector was in wind power.
Recently, it has added solar power to its business focus through its subsidiary, BayWa r.e. Solar Systems LLC. This American-based company is a subsidiary of BayWa r.e. renewable energy GmbH. Both subsidiaries are under the umbrella of parent company BayWa AG. On the renewable energy front, the company is involved in solar, wind, bio, and geothermal power production and marketing.

BayWa r.e. Solar Systems says that it has more than 400 MW in a growing project pipeline throughout the Americas. Projects range from two to 80 MW in size within a full range of applications, including single-axis trackers and fixed arrays on ground-mounted, rooftop, and carport sites.

Faust says that AET supplied its Rayport-G ECO ground-mount racking system on all three of Baywa r.e.'s North Carolina solar projects. They are located within 30 miles of Raleigh, in Selma, Newton Grove, and Smithfield, and were built parallel to each other, with the same suppliers for each project. All told, AET supplied racking for 23,000 solar panelsfrom CSUN, a specialized manufacturer of solar cells and modules. Solectria supplied the inverters for the three projects, and each site has two SGI750 models and one SGI500.

AET says that its Rayport-G ECO ground-mount racking system is rapidly becoming an industry standard for developers and EPCs who are looking for a system that is easy to install, scalable, and delivers "a significant savings on total installed costs."

Faust says AET is constantly looking for ways to remain cost-competitive because it has to live with the prevailing view among solar power developers that price is king when it comes to selecting a racking system supplier. Given the current highly cost-competitive environment for solar racking systems as the industry matures, it was gratifying for the company to be chosen by BayWa r.e. for the North Carolina projects, considering that the power developer makes no secret of the high performance standards it expects from its suppliers.

 
AET supplied its Rayport-G ECO ground-mount racking system on all three of BayWa r.e.'s North Carolina solar projects. The three projects are located within 30 miles of Raleigh, in Selma, Newton Grove, and Smithfield, and were built parallel to each other, with the same suppliers for each project. 
  

"AET's Rayport-G ECO was a smart choice for these projects," says Jam Attari, CEO at BayWa r.e. "AET had the best quality and ease of installation for the price. We have a great deal of confidence in the team at AET."

Faust described BayWa r.e. as being very thorough with its vetting process to prequalify and select suppliers for their solar projects, as well as in their designs of individual projects.

"They definitely are one of the more meticulous customers that we have," he says, adding that working with BayWa r.e. on the North Carolina projects has been interesting given their extensive experience installing certain preferred configurations of solar arrays in Europe and AET's experience with preferred configurations in North America.

"We're always in conversation with them in trying to optimize and put something together that is best for both companies," says Faust.

Although AET offers installation services for its racking systems, BayWa r.e. was able to install the system themselves on the North Carolina projects.

The level terrain of the North Carolina projects provided a good foundation for AET's racking system, with no major challenges during the construction phase of the solar arrays in mid-2015, other than the typical tight timing required for product delivery once the contract for the racking system was awarded.

As in other projects, there is always a certain amount of racking customization required after a project is awarded, due to last minute project design tweaking to take into consideration such issues as array gaps, size adjustments, and roadways. AET was able to meet all of BayWa r.e.'s requirements within their timeline.

"Our Rayport-G ECO product does allow for a fair amount of flexibility on site," says Faust. "The biggest determining factor on that is how accurate you are with putting your posts in. We have a larger tolerance on post location movement than other systems."

He adds that the 'adjustability and foregiveability' of this solar racking product is a particularly good feature for first-time solar racking system users as well as less experienced installers. Even with more experienced users, this adjustability is welcomed when surprises happen. AET offers training support for the installation of its systems.

The company has even more potential projects with BayWa r.e. in the pipeline, as the renewable power developer works to become a major player in solar power in the U.S.

Earning business from a company with the size and experience in solar power development such as BayWa r.e. is an important company milestone for AET, says Faust, and a good springboard to attracting more solar racking supply business. Working with a solar developer the size of BayWa r.e. gives AET additional credibility for its product performance and its dependability within the industry. Also, because BayWa r.e. operates internationally, it may open new business opportunities for AET beyond its traditional market in the U.S.

 


July/August 2016