World-first relocatable solar pods power commercial rooftops

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From pv magazine Australia.

“The inability to relocate traditional solar arrays once they are installed has been a major barrier to solar investment in some of our property assets,” said Steve Ford, head of sustainability and energy at GPT Group, which owns and manages a $24 billion portfolio of Australian commercial property.

Ford was echoing the reticence of thousands of businesses to invest in solar installations with a lifetime of at least 25 years when their leases may be much shorter or they might have plans for site redevelopment or other legitimate concerns. New company Solpod opens new, flexible opportunities and business models that can overcome hurdles to commercial solar uptake.

Prefabricated, 5 kW Solpods are made of a premium 72-cell solar panel made by Chinese company JA Solar. Framed and raised on legs at an angle that promotes self cleaning, the panels are installed by crane and affixed to roofs using adhesive in a process that takes as little as 10 minutes per panel.

Typically, 21 Solpod modules – 100 kW of solar generation – can be transported on a truck and installed with minimal disruption to a site, and with no damage to rooftop structures.

A commercial-scale installation of Solpods takes days to achieve generation, rather than weeks, and is non-invasive as it involves no drilling or clamping.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has recognized the potential for the Solpod to “help accelerate solar PV innovation … providing a cost-competitive alternative to standard methods of fixed mounting”, said agency CEO Darren Miller.

ARENA has provided $975,000 (US$699,000) for a 25-site demonstration program of Solpod installations. Some have already begun generating and other installations in New South Wales and Victoria are scheduled for completion this year.

In total, 2.5 MW of Solpod solar PV will be mounted at sites including 10 owned by commercial property group GPT – among them its Highpoint, Parkmore and Norton Plaza shopping centers – and on 10 New South Wales government properties managed by Property NSW.

“Working with ARENA is a rigorous process that definitely made us better,” Solpod co-founder and CEO James Larratt told pv magazine. “It’s much more than funding. We’d each been in the solar industry for at least a decade but ARENA’s input has been invaluable.”

Buy or lease

An Australian PV veteran, Larratt had encountered the barriers to getting rooftop solar onto ideally situated commercial sites and has long been pondering a solution.

In 2017, he and his partners decided the Solpod concept of “mobile”, easily re-deployable solar was worth pursuing and he said he is grateful large, established companies such as GPT and ERM Power were prepared to work with the business through the start-up stage and bring the product to market.

Customers can choose to buy a Solpod system outright or choose an energy solution such as a Solpod lease or power-purchase arrangement through energy retailer ERM Power.

In a statement issued today, ERM said it expected 500 kW installations for logistics and industrial sheds to become the most popular commercial set up in the near future, and predicted Solpod could double the uptake of 100 kW-5 MW commercial systems in Australia, helping boost the 113 MW achieved in 2018 to 250 MW by 2021.

“Solpod’s innovation in commercial solar installation is groundbreaking,” said ERM Power CEO Jon Stretch. “Large-scale industrial operators can purchase the Solpods or lease them and enjoy the benefits of significantly lower solar installation costs, slash their power bills and have the ability to take the installation with them at any time in the future.”

“Getting the supply chain logistics right is vital when you have a big crane ready to lift panels onto a rooftop” or take them down, said Solpod CEO James Larratt.

The low cost of Solpod relocation could also create a secondary market for the commercial solar systems.

Such new solar models mean “businesses can benefit now from rooftop solar without having to make long-term commitments to the property”, said Larratt, and it reduces exposure to technology they fear may become outdated in five or 10 years.

Larratt foresees payment models similar to the purchase-by-plan system used in fast-moving mobile phone technology, or the subscription models of computer software that entitle users to upgrades as they are developed.

Produced in Melbourne, the Solpod will initially create 10 manufacturing jobs and Larratt and ERM Power are determined to keep the company’s intellectual property in Australia, but Solpod has already factored global sales into its business plan.

“We’re definitely looking at overseas markets,” said Larratt, “and the reason we can go there with confidence is that Australia has one of the biggest, most competitive, most efficient rooftop solar markets in the world. If we can get this up here, it’s really got global opportunities.”