Commercial Rooftop Solar 101 with Kristen Fornes of Engie Distributed Solar | view the interview here

“We see huge opportunity for solar and storage in the U S . . . after a very crazy 2020” and ending with the extension of the ITC, Kristen Fornes of Engie Distributed Solar in Chicago told the Solar Podcast.

What’s a good opportunity for distributed solar?
“Our focus now is primarily on rooftop, ground mount or car port projects, customer sites from 250 KW.” She says that typically the size is not limited by the roof area, rather it is limited by net metering or interconnection rules, or in busy markets, congestion related circuit issues. “A lot of our customers tend to be large corporations that have distribution centers or large campus style facilities where they’re looking for larger installations . . . but we recognize that there’s still a lot of smaller customers that are looking for solar as well,” she told host Tim Montague, with an IKEA  distribution center visible in the background, a project developed by Engie and constructed by Continental Energy Solutions.

Getting a project off the ground
Building owners or customers often don’t know where to start, according to Kristin. “They can get pretty far down the line without identifying fatal flaws, and then be somewhat turned off by a solar storage project.”

What’s on the initial checklist?

Roof condition is huge. Is the roof able to last long enough to match the PPA contract? If you’re going to own the system, is there at least 10 years remaining of roof life? Look at replacing your roof at the same time as building your solar project.

Roof control is an absolute. Commercial businesses that lease their building might have 15 or 20 years left on their lease, so they can sign a 15-year solar PPA. But they may not have control of the roof. “We’ve started construction on a project, or we have actually built the system, and then a year later, the landlord said, ‘Hey, come remove this system.’ Ask your legal department to review your lease or get assistance from your developer.

A facility’s electrical infrastructure is critical to know about early in project planning and the cost projection process. “We have a full team of electrical engineers internally that would evaluate the customer’s electrical drawings,” according to Kristin. “They would put together a plan for interconnection. They would make sure that there was a spur, a breaker for us to interconnect the system.” Before you put a budget together, understand where you’re interconnecting the system, because if it’s a big roof, like the one behind you, it could be a thousand feet from a connection point.”

Utility upgrades can be potentially prohibitive. Be prepared. Especially in the Northeast and in California, during the interconnection process, it isn’t uncommon to find there are required upgrades. Understand any upgrades before you finalize your agreement with your customer. It could change their decision, i.e., adding $500,000 worth of upgrades on a 2MW project.

Talking markets: does solar work any place?
The sun shines in all 50 states. But obviously you get more power in a state like Arizona than in a state like Illinois. There are differences in the building cost of a project. There are different incentives. And the cost of power is different all over the U.S. “Illinois might get as much sun as let’s say, New Jersey, but the cost of power in New Jersey is actually significantly higher than it is in Illinois,” Kristin explains. “So your PPA price is going to be different. Your return on your project is going to be different.”

There are a lot of factors, and solar is very dynamic. These markets are changing. “That’s why it’s really important to have a developer partner that understands these markets and the timing.”

Watch the full interview  in which Kristin offers specific insight for different regions of the country, including states like Virginia that have carve outs for customer sited, behind the meter projects, encouraging smaller projects, i.e., 1MW and less.