Solar installers expand into new services to meet market needs
As the solar industry continues to grow and enter new markets and geographies, the companies that sell and install solar systems are responsible for addressing evolving customer challenges and keeping up with new technology. Installers are taking on entirely new services related to accessory technologies, system maintenance and work preparation as they determine what will be needed to offer solar customers in the evolving market.
So, how should a solar company decide when it’s time to break into a new service? Eric Domescik, co-founder and chairman of Renewvia Energy, an Atlanta, Georgia solar installer, knew it was time for him and his employees to put in too much work to meet operational and maintenance (O&M) requests.
The company has been around for ten years. Although Domescik originally added O&M calls to his pile of day-to-day responsibilities, he felt the need was not being properly met. In any sales-related area, maintaining relationships is important and can lead to referrals for future business.
“That’s why we had to grow organically, just to meet the demands of what we had already achieved,” Domescik said.
To better serve customers, Renewvia has added an O&M service that it offers to existing customers and customers outside of its network. The key to the new service was hiring a dedicated O&M program director to answer those calls.
Renewvia handles O&M with an in-house team led by program director John Thornburg, mainly in Southeastern states, or what Domescik called the company’s backyard. It outsources O&M to technicians in states outside Renewvia’s vicinity. But if there is enough demand in a particular area, Renewvia will consider hiring an O&M technician for that area.
Integrating a new service may require the involvement of existing teams in a company. In the case of Renewvia, the construction crew talks to customers about O&M options and relays those newly installed projects to the O&M team.
“To add an O&M service is definitely a commitment that everyone in the company has to participate in,” Domescik said. “You make bold claims that you will respond in a certain amount of time and that you will have the resources and the means to do the work that you have promised.”
Adding a new service to a company can also mean expanding the workspace. Building or renting a new space is an investment not to be taken lightly, but as the services continue to grow, the company’s footprint can grow as well. Miami, Florida-based turnkey solar company Origis Energy decided to build a new facility for a new solar service.
Solar O&M was offered at Origis from the start, but the company wanted to tap into potential external customers. In 2019 it created Origis services, a separate branch of the company that focuses strictly on O&M. The company built a 10,000-square-foot facility called the Remote Operating Center (ROC) in Austin, Texas, which sends O&M engineers to a multi-gigawatt portfolio of solar projects across the country. The ROC is equipped with project monitoring software and is completely dedicated to the activities of Origis Services.
“I think it’s just a process of evolution and growth,” said Glenna Wiseman, public marketing lead for Origis. “The team always had what it needed in Miami, but the portfolio grew and we are moving forward. We see the need for such an approach. It wasn’t, “This didn’t work here.” It was, ‘We’re getting bigger, and we need more space.’”
Like Renewvia, the key to Origis handing over and launching the service was hiring the right person. Michael Eyman, General Manager of Origis Services, spent 21 years with the US Navy Reserve, servicing remote operations and holding O&M roles at MaxGen and SunPower.
Hiring the staff needed to do the job is also crucial. Origis has 70 employees in the ROC and another 500 O&M technicians across the country. Eyman said Origis is bringing senior technicians to solar installations and hiring new community technicians to maintain those arrays.
“The biggest challenge we have is the job market, which is why we really fall back on hiring people who want a career,” he said. “Educate them, give them longevity, and since we have a long trajectory, we can give those people more opportunities and really have a long-term career. We see ourselves as leaders in those communities.”
Add services outside the solar panel
Sometimes a solar energy market can demand a service that is completely beyond typical solar expertise. While a residential roof is a well-known place for solar installations, it is not common for solar installers to offer an in-house roof service as well.
Palomar Solar & Roofing of Escondido, California, added a roofing department about three years ago after finding that many customers required roofing work before installing solar.
“We didn’t really want to start a roofing business, but it seemed like we were constantly running into people who needed roofs,” said Adam Rizzo, business development partner at Palomar.
To make adding roofing as easy as possible, Palomar sought an existing operation to join the team. George Cortes had been a roofer in the area for over 20 years. He had existing crews and did much of the day-to-day operations of his roofing business himself. Palomar brought in Cortes and his crews, gave them new work vehicles and took over the business side of operations such as payroll and job bidding.
“If we hadn’t found George I don’t know if we would have had this success that we have now because it would have taken a lot more of a headache to set everything up,” Rizzo said. “We have a well-trained sales team that understands how to sell it, and now George only has to worry about coordinating installations.”
Before adding a roofing service, Palomar often encountered solar installations that would void a customer’s roof warranty. With in-house roofing, the company can now offer guarantees on both the roof and the solar installation and respond to that specific need in sales talks.
It used to be a hassle to outsource roofers and coordinate their schedules with Palomar installers. Now Palomar’s roofing department will prepare the roof, the solar installers will build the array, and the roofers will return to frame the roof.
“You just have to go into it like we’ve done it with solar,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to take care of it anyway. We believe this is the right thing to offer customers for their peace of mind and you just have to be willing to roll with the fists.”
Solar companies will continue to evolve with the market to meet the needs of their customers. Service expansion is possible through good planning, conscious hiring and, if necessary, increasing a company’s footprint.