Let us start with what does a Solar System Installer in solar industry mean. In common language, it generally refers to KW rated roof top photovoltaic projects. Also known as Solar System Integrator, it encompasses the actual execution/construction task (‘installing’ a solar system); and other role across all functions as required being an entrepreneur; from sales/marketing, engineering, procurement and execution, to even Operation and Maintenance (O&M). Also, the general difference between EPC (Engineering Procurement and Construction) and SI (System Integrator) is in the size of project (KW versus MW, though many rooftop projects these days are beyond a few MWs); and perhaps also the voltage LT (415V) versus HT (11KV+). A SI actually does all the parts E, P and C!
The ‘system’ in SI, that we are referring to may be any of the solar PV systems mentioned below:
- Off (with battery), on (battery less) grid system, hybrids. Mini, micro, Nano solar grids!
- Decentralized systems like street lights, electric fence, battery charging for telecom towers etc.
- Water pumping
These are primarily, the systems that are designed and customized to user’s requirement and is not a standard product often for consumer use (like a portable light, mobile charger, standard home power packs etc.). Now let us discuss, what an ideal situation should be pre-start of being an installer.
Knowledge, study and evaluation of the following is a key requirement before you start your installer startup:
a) Market opportunities in the geographical or sector intended, along with existing and potential future competition
b) Value proposition in terms of products, systems, business model – the USP (Unique Selling Proposition) being offered
c) Solar policy in the location, which generally varies from state to state. One should study theory and practical areas of challenges specifically for net metering, subsidy, taxation, legal (elevated rooftop requirements), technical approvals like CEIG.
d) Identification and search for co-founders, investors, partners, vendors as the case may be.
Skills: Some of the skills one should have or ‘learn/aggregate’ within your top functional heads are mentioned below. Some of these may be clubbed within a fewer personnel in the beginning, till your work load increases and one can afford.
a) Solar – Basics of solar PV, comparison with solar thermal, different system types (off, on grid and hybrid) and the features of these with their fitment to consumer’s requirement; roof types, basics of shadows, design of systems, bought out solar products data/prices to offer options to consumers
b) Financials – This is the key decision making point for most investors, and a good know-ledge on how to calculate Profit & Loss, IRRs/ Returns on investment/equity, and paybacks is essential. Contractual/commercial and a bit of legal knowledge, esp. for if you are planning to get into Opex model; have investors who will sign Power Purchase Agreements with 3rd party captive users on rooftops or open access. Financial incentives offered by Government and various schemes which are available for the specific state needs to be known in detail.
c) Financial skills are also required for raising funds (for operations or Opex models), working capital and understanding of business requirements in terms of growth, scalability, capturing clients etc.
2. Engineering, execution and O&M:
Solar systems require skills and experience in engineering; and to varied levels in execution and O&M in the areas of:
a) Solar: Advanced level of system design, generation optimization and estimation from shadow analysis to string design, switch gear, net-metering requirement are essential to have. For founders who do not have such skills from experience or training workshops, they can initially outsource some or all of the designs in the early stages of business. There are more than 20 solar consulting companies and experts in India, whom one can approach for such support.
b) Electrical: Most of the rooftop systems are at LT (Low Tension), i.e. 415V 3 phase (or single phase 230V), and therefore this skill is relatively easier to have. Some of them for larger systems and depending on state level policy, have to be evacuated at HT (High Tension 11000V+). Standards for safety and electrical codes for both design and execution should be known to this person, ideally will be 5+ years experienced and electrical engineer. Some knowledge on electronics and software usage/configuration (though most of it is user friendly) is good to have for inverter and monitoring setups. Innovative systems like Internet of Things, Machine Learning, Could based systems, can pitch you higher in the competitive market. If you are not a designer or supplier in these areas, sub contract products/services from other startups/mature companies from non solar or solar domain.
c) Mechanical/structural/civil skills will be helpful for roof strengths, structure design and fabrication. These will help optimize costs, aesthetics and usability (elevated structures e.g.). The structures are generally the most differentiated part in design and costing between projects from one place to another, and therefore quite an important skill. Specific software tools are used to design and verify, and thankfully, many institutes who provide such software training are good places to help you source tasks or hires.
3.Solar policy ‘fine-prints’, liaison, commercial, taxation, logistics – are all the important aspects of rooftop installations. Many of the delays and cost over-runs in projects are due to these issues. Successful companies could create expertise in these skills quickly.
4. Procurement, Execution, Quality and Project Management:
These are as essential as the sales and engineering skills, since they are the key to meeting expectations of the clients and profitability. For a startup, word of mouth and references are very important. Customer’s requirements and expectations are to be set right in the sales cycle, and being open about out-of-scope is essential. There have been many heartburns, mainly because of absence of follow-up with a minutes of meetings for verbally commitments by an over enthusiast sales person. One has to also learn to say NO for some quality and design ‘requests’ beyond the techno-commercial obligations required as per the contract, considering that these may not form part of standards and industry norms are not yet set as the rooftop solar industry is yet not fully evolved.
Since 70-85% of the solar project cost is for bought out items, procurement needs a very high level of attention, along with networking amongst vendors and ‘long term relation-ship’ building. Technical evaluation and their return on investments for new innovative options that may be offered to clients are going to need in-depth study. These are IoT control/ management; DC systems; hybrid inverters; DG synchronization; mini/micro grids.