Achieving assembly line efficiencies in the solar industry

By Robert Souliere, Director of Energy and Infrastructure, Axsus

2020 has presented many social and economic obstacles that we have never faced before and could have never predicted. Even so, annual solar growth in the United States is forecasted to reach 37% in 2020. Corporations, utilities and local governments are setting aggressive emissions-reduction and renewable energy targets, and consumers are demanding cleaner energy resources. Sustainable investing has attracted record inflows during the pandemic, a trend that is expected to continue for years to come.

Even with this convergence of growth-drivers and strong performance indicators, solar is still a relatively new industry that must be intentional about maintaining momentum. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that we never know what is around the corner. To build upon solar’s recent success, we can look to legacy institutions for inspiration. There are many parallels in particular between solar and the automotive industry, and in order to continue to succeed during and after COVID-19, solar leaders should look to best practices modeled by the 100 year-old automotive sector to improve efficiencies and support ongoing growth.

The startup mentality of the solar industry has led to amazing technology innovations and cost reductions. But not every system or process needs to be reinvented entirely, and there are benefits to going back to the basics and learning from institutional industries like automotive. Let’s take a look at the connections between these industries and how solar can apply best practices across the supply chain.

Product engineering, design and testing

Efficiency gains begin with effective product design, engineering and testing processes. Ongoing research and product development are standard within the automotive sector — carmakers subject their components to rigorous quality assurance and control procedures to ensure every product is standardized with performance guarantees. In solar, product quality is essential to ensuring successful project deployments. Technology that has been proven through quality assurance and control procedures can ensure developers are working with uniform, high-performance equipment that ultimately makes construction and operations more efficient.

Competition among solar solutions providers has led to further technology improvements and new deployment opportunities. For example, until recently only certain geographic locations would have considered solar trackers for a project, assuming that harsh colder climates with high snow loads would require fixed-tilt racking.

Just like cars with their performance and vehicle crash tests, solar technologies that are deployed in the United States or Canada must undergo rigorous UL testing. Product manufacturers need to understand how to test appropriately to meet these standards and then translate successful technologies into mass production. These advancements are important because they lead to higher-production solar projects and ensure that more sites can be system viable.

Construction and operations

Simple, smarter designs allow for more efficient construction because the equipment requires fewer hardware and tools, reducing the opportunity for error, and allowing more repetitive and repeatable installations. With the right designs, a solar project site can essentially transform into a large, outdoor assembly line. By learning and specializing in a single component or assembly, workers can construct projects far more rapidly and easily — installing piles, racks and repeating until a job is complete. Emulating the assembly line can help solar workers capture some of the coveted efficiencies that Ford introduced to the automotive sector over a century ago.

Floating solar arrays are assembled and fastened on land then pushed into the water row by row. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

Considering the long term for equipment is also essential. When consumers purchase a vehicle, they are looking at the design to assess its longevity and to determine if it’s a worthwhile investment. After purchase, cars that are well-maintained will operate more efficiently and for longer, and if parts are easily accessible it is easier to provide the necessary upkeep.

Similarly, solar stakeholders must also consider the full life-cycle of a project and ensure that it will effectively operate for at least 25 years. Simple racking and tracking designs with fewer components that are universally available can reduce headaches later on. Additionally, finding solution providers with proven track records of success ensures a project’s bankability.

What’s next?

The next decade will be a critical inflection point in the climate crisis. Continuing to improve efficiencies in the solar industry will support additional market growth, and serve the growing needs of an electrifying economy with clean energy resources. Cross-industry learnings can help solar better serve increasing demand, and the process of borrowing and adapting best practices can help every sector of the economy better prepare and address the challenges ahead.