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Solar-powered car dealership

Cool Earth Solar stepped in to remove an old solar power system and install a state-of-the-art system?"with a new low profile racking system?"at a car dealership in California.

By Diane Mettler

When a solar array on a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Fairfield, California, near San Francisco, began to fail, who did they call? Cool Earth Solar.

Cool Earth Solar, headquartered in Pleasanton, California, is a complete design to build contractor comprised of 25 employees. And their business is 100 percent referral.

"We do the energy assessments, design, engineering and the construction," says Cool Earth's CEO Rob Lamkin. "We pull the permits, and do all the construction/installation work ourselves. Nothing is subbed out."

In addition, after the build, Cool Earth also handles the operations and maintenance.

Cool Earth found that the solar array on the Mercedes-Benz dealership building was old, underperforming and failing—tubes were leaking. It needed to be removed and replaced right away.

The first, and time consuming, step was to make sure that all the material removed was disposed of properly vs. taken to a landfill.

"We put it in sealed boxes. All the metal went to a metal recycler and the Solyndra tubes are going to a certified solar recycler," says Lamkin.

Once that portion of the project was completed, the installation of the new solar array of 360 panels on the 40,000-square foot dealership building took approximately two weeks.

"Once we tore the old system out, it was like putting a new one in from scratch," says Lamkin. "We replaced all the conduit wire, but we could keep the electrical switch gear as it was already a solar system and sufficient to the task."

When it came to selecting the components for the system, Cool Earth went with Delta inverters, SunPower solar panels and Preformed Line Products' (PLP) new racking system, Power Max.

"We've only been using Delta inverters for about nine months, and we like them. They're a good product," says Lamkin.

PLP's Power Max racking system, however, was a first for Cool Earth and was chosen because of its low profile.

"Because of the roof, the wind loads in the area and what we were trying to accomplish with the design of the build, we wanted to do a very low profile, flush mount to the roof—and most ballasted racking won't allow you to do that," says Lamkin. "Power Max lets you get really low to the deck."

After a couple of days to familiarize themselves with PLP's Power Max System, Cool Earth found the racking to be very easy to assemble, to stack and ship to the site and deploy on the Mercedes-Benz showroom's roof.

One feature that Cool Earth likes about the PLP system is its smooth edges. "It was a TPO roof, which is a fairly thin membrane roof very common with commercial buildings. As long as they don't get cut or torn, they're very robust and they're nice roofing materials. But since the membrane is kind of thin, if it gets a tear or a cut, it can leak and that's a problem," says Lamkin. "What was nice about the Power Max racking system, which is made out of an injection molded plastic, is that it doesn't have sharp metal edges to it. For a membrane type of roof, plastic ballasted racking is very friendly and very kind to the surface of the roof. It had some real advantages."

 
 Construction went smoothly on the Mercedes-Benz project, and it became operational this spring. The Mercedes-Benz dealership is pleased with the system's performance: it's now offsetting 100 percent of its electricity bill.
  

One of the advantages that Power Max provides is a flexibility of design, offering flush, 5, and 10 degree tilt options. Also during installation, the system is adjustable around roof obstructions and shaded areas.

For Cool Earth, the choice of solar panels was easy—SunPower. Not only is Cool Earth one of SunPower's highest rated authorized dealers, but in Lamkin's opinion, SunPower modules are the best solar panels available.

"I believe SunPower is the most efficient solar panel in the world," says Lamkin. "Not only is it one of the oldest solar companies in the world, as far as I know SunPower is the only solar company who has been around longer than their warranty, and they have the best warranty in the entire industry."

But Lamkin says it's not just Cool Earth that gives SunPower high marks. "There have been a number of third party tests, and third party results, and SunPower's always scoring at the top. They've got a long, rich history in the industry and make a module that's at the top in terms of reliability, and best warranty."

Construction went smoothly on the Mercedes-Benz project, and it became operational this spring.

Everyone is pleased with the performance—especially the Mercedes-Benz dealership. Prior to the new installation, the company was offsetting approximately one-third of its electricity bill. Today, it's offsetting 100 percent, and payback will probably be about three years.

When asked what was most satisfying about the Mercedes-Benz Fairfield project, Lamkin immediately answered, "It's a big plus for a solar industry person to be able to fix and remove a system that's just not performing and put on a new system that is performing."

He added: "Another positive was for a company like Mercedes-Benz Fairfield, who was a very early adopter of solar power, to keep going with solar despite their previous subpar experience with solar.

 
When it came to selecting the components for the system, Cool Earth Solar went with Delta inverters, SunPower solar panels and Preformed Line Products' (PLP) new racking system, Power Max. 
  

"A lot of people are pro solar now because they can go green and make green, but for the people that were doing it 10 years ago, the economics weren't near as good. So it's satisfying to work with an entity that has the environment in mind and went solar, was an early adopter for solar when economics weren't nearly as favorable as they are now. That's nice."

Cool Earth is already involved in other projects in the San Francisco Bay area, where they have been installing solar systems for the past 11 years. In fact, they are so busy, they have had to turn down some work—or as Lamkin looks at it, they have the opportunity to choose those projects and customers that are a perfect fit for the company.

Cool Earth does about $5 million to $10 million in business a year, predominantly installing solar projects for commercial and industrial clients. And although they are licensed to work throughout California, Cool Earth likes to remain within a 2-hour radius of the Bay Area, an area where there are few freezing days and it's easy to work year round.

The Mercedes project—a 200 kilowatt system—is an ideal size for Cool Earth. Although they have done a few smaller and larger, it's the average-sized project for the Cool Earth team, which includes a construction crew, installers, designers, and a couple of engineers and "business people".

Lamkin has been with Cool Earth Solar from the start. He was one of the founders of Cool Earth and has been CEO the entire time. He's watched the evolution of the company as it has weathered the evolution of the industry.

"We started out on the product development side, doing R&D, developing new solar products and then expanded into the project business," he says.

The product they developed worked well and Cool Earth was issued a number of patents, but when solar panels dropped in price to a point where Cool Earth's product could no longer compete, they turned to SunPower, a product they could fully stand behind.

"As a participant in the industry, you either pivot and grow and adapt, or you're gone," says Lamkin.

And adapt they did. The company is busier than they have ever been, even at a time when tariffs and other pressures are having a negative effect on the industry. Lamkin credits the fact that they work on 100 percent referral.

"I think we build very good projects and our customers are happy and tell their business friends and associates. And that's why our business is good and growing—our customers are very happy with the projects we build for them."

But what's really exciting for Lamkin is seeing companies like Mercedes-Benz still excited about solar.

"You had a customer who, even though they had this poor and old technology on the roof, it didn't dampen their enthusiasm for solar." It would be understandable if their interest for solar power dimmed. But that did not happen, said Lamkin. "Their enthusiasm for solar was still there. They just wanted the old system off and a new one on, so that's what we did."

 


September/October 2018