The Uniqueness of Solar Projects
Dominic Ballesteros, operations manager for Jokake Electric in Phoenix, Arizona, began working on solar projects almost seven years ago. He eventually met Jorge Garcia, CEO of Jokake Electric, when they were working on a project for Arizona Public Service - the Deer Valley Mission Critical Operations Center.
“We installed a 19 kW solar system, and I found out that Jorge was interested in getting more involved in solar, so I began working here,” Ballesteros said.
To market the company's solar abilities, Jokake tries not to simply be the low bidder and do a lot of public-type bidding. “About 95 percent of our work is design/build, which means that we can start solar projects with clients in the early, conceptual stages and provide budgeting throughout the project, not only on the electrical side, but other work, such as telephone, data, fire alarm, audio-visual systems, solar, etc.,” said Ballesteros.
One solar project was for Eastlake Park, a park in downtown Phoenix owned by the city, which was originally constructed in the late 1800s. In 2011, the park was overhauled to update and modernize it. The project included selective demolition, site grading, a network of new pathways, new seating walls, entry monuments, new lighting, and a solar system installed by Jokake Electric.
In December 2012, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) began construction on a new commercial truck weight station to inspect vehicles passing through the Douglas (Arizona) Port of Entry. The $4 million facility is being constructed on an 11-acre site in the same location as the existing inspection station. The new station will be housed inside a 5,800-square-foot building, featuring two inspection bays and eight inspection work stations. Both the inspection facilities and the administrative facilities are being built to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Silver environmental standards, which will include the use of local building materials, low water-use landscaping and plumbing fixtures, and solar. “We are doing the whole job for the ADOT project in Douglas, including a 19 kW solar system,” explained Ballesteros. “We are doing the labor ourselves and are reaching out to different supporting contractors to do the design and provide the materials, which we then install.”
While there is a lot of interest in solar from customers and prospects, the work is not without its challenges, few of which relate to the technology itself, according to Ballesteros. The biggest challenges relate to trying to understand what the owners really want and need, which seem to change over time.
- One challenge relates to how much power the owners want. “For example, how much do they need to power the facility, and how much do they want to send back through the grid?” he said.
- Another relates to mounting locations, with which the owners seem to be comfortable at first. “However, as the building goes up and drywall gets in, and they can actually see what things are going to look like, they start to ask why it can't be moved to another location,” he detailed.
- Another challenge relates to the mounting systems. There are different perceptions of how solar systems mount on roofs. “Some owners think it just lays on a grid, when, in fact, you need to have the arrays capture the sunlight as it tracks across the sky or design the system a little bit larger so it lays on a ballast-type flat roof system and can deal with the wind loads,” he said.
- Color options of mounting system are also a concern. For example, on one project, the mounting system cantilevered over the building and acted as a shade structure. “As a result, the customer wanted it to be a certain shade of gray, not realizing that mounting systems are only available in standard aluminum finishes,” stated Ballesteros.
As such, Jokake finds that it is very important to spend a lot of time up front with customers/owners to discuss what is possible and what is not possible.
“We would like to get involved even more in solar work,” he said. “I can see Arizona really benefiting from it. Over time, I hope costs will come down and systems will last longer, both of which will encourage more businesses and individuals to become interested.”
BHI in Vernal, Utah, which was founded in 1998, serves customers in the majority of western and southern states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.
As part of its services, BHI has a Green Energy Services Division. The company’s website notes that: “In recent years, the need for alternative energy sources has become an intricate challenge. Whether your needs require expertise in solar or wind energy, our Green Energy Services division has the ability to assist in recommending, designing, and providing these highly efficient and reliable types of renewable energy solutions.”
“We have always done a lot of solar work, since we do a lot of work with the oilfield industry,” said Quinn Miles, vice president of electrical instrumentation for BHI. “There are a lot of solar installations at well sites, for the simple fact that there is no other source of power available.” Because of the large power demands of the wells, some of these facilities have quite a bit of solar on them.
BHI has also done some solar installations on cabins, where there is no other access to power or limited access to other power.
It wasn't difficult to learn the technology, according to Miles. “In fact, solar technology is really quite simple,” he said. “The technology is changing quickly, such as newer panels with better wattage, batteries that last a lot longer, etc. However, the changes usually aren't really major, so it's not difficult to keep up with them.”
BHI markets its solar capabilities on its website and also in all of its sales brochures.
A lot of BHI's oil industry customers provide their own equipment. “They purchase equipment and sometimes complete systems from equipment vendors, and then we do the installations,” said Miles. “However, on some projects, we work exclusively through a couple of equipment vendors.”
Interestingly, many of the solar projects BHI does involve a creative concept. “We engineer a lot of solar skids that we sell to customers,” he said. “We began doing this about three years ago.” These are complete packages that customers can purchase from BHI, which builds them in-house, mounts them on skids, loads the skids onto trailers, and then transports them out to the well sites. The skid configuration can run the complete site. “We sell six to eight of these a month,” said Miles.
While a lot of electrical contractors have created a strategy to emphasize their solar capabilities, others do solar primarily when it is a requirement of a larger job. Southwestern Electrical Contracting in Alamogordo, New Mexico, is one such company. While Southwestern has the capabilities to do solar projects and has done some in the past, it has not been and is not currently a focus, according to Scott A. Moore, executive vice president of new projects.
“At first, we really weren't looking to do solar in specific,” he said.“It just happened to be a requirement on several projects that we did for the Air Force.” (About 95 percent of the company's work is for the military.)
“At the time, we thought about pursuing it commercially,” he said. “However, being here in the southwest, there are so many other people doing it that the environment is just too competitive for it to make sense for us. Everyone has beaten the market down so much that it is difficult to make any money.”
As a result, Southwestern hasn't done much at all since it did the early Air Force projects. “In fact, solar isn't even part of many of the current projects we do,” said Moore.
As the solar technology evolves, solar seems to be a growing part of electrical contracting opportunities.
William Atkinson is a freelance writer with experience in the construction and contracting industries.