An Interview with Tor Valenza (Part 1): Energy Storage Project Design, Engineering and Permitting
by Tracy Fosterling on Dec 18, 2018
Tor Valenza, aka “Solar Fred”, has been in the solar business for more than a decade and is one of the most well-known thought leaders in our industry. As a long-time marketing consultant, Tor advised leading solar brands and companies on their branding, PR and digital communication strategies. Additionally, Tor has published numerous articles and blogs in industry countless trade publications over the last decade, and tirelessly tweeted about solar to his over 16,000 twitter followers. In early 2018 Tor went “in-house” when he joined SepiSolar as their Director of Marketing.
In this 2-part interview, Tor and I spoke about SepiSolar, issues with permitting, site surveying, and the outsourcing of project design/engineering/consulting services. The second part of this interview will focus on the biggest problems solar marketers face & how to solve them.
Tell us about SepiSolar and the consulting services that you provide?
SepiSolar is a national solar+storage design and engineering company serving the residential, commercial, utility and microgrid sectors. We’re a full-service design firm with 15 full-time engineers on staff here in our Fremont, California offices. In addition to permit-ready plan sets for all sectors, we offer P.E. stamps for all 50 states, interconnection application services, preliminary designs for sales proposals—pretty much everything you need to start your solar or storage project and get it approved by your local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) and your utility. This enables our customers to design and permit their projects more accurately and efficiently, which is both a time and money saver.
SepiSolar believes that consulting and engineering go hand-in-hand. Engineers can provide better service when they are informed by consultants what the best-in-class technologies, products, and programs are. Likewise, consultants provide better service when they know what works and doesn’t work on the ground floor, at the project-level. Having this feedback loop between our engineering teams and consulting teams allows us to best serve our customer needs.
What are the most popular design/engineering/consulting services that solar companies are choosing to outsource?
Generally, solar contractors, EPCs, and developers need help with full plan sets for their particular projects. We consider ourselves not just designers and engineers, but also requirements experts. We have relationships with AHJs across the U.S. and we stay up to date on all the codes and requirements, products and technologies, and utility interconnection requirements that will get your projects through every jurisdiction on the first try. If revisions are needed because of jurisdiction requirements have changed, that’s on us. We’ll make it right.
In terms of consulting, it’s all about energy storage these days, isn’t? Our founder Josh Weiner was one of the co-founders of Green Charge Networks, one of the first lithium-based battery companies that was recently sold to Engie. We have a great understanding of what energy storage can do for solar from a technical, a design, regulatory, and financial perspective. In fact, we’re often designing energy storage systems for jurisdictions that are seeing flow batteries and lithium-based systems for the first time.
What are the benefits of outsourcing? Are most of your customers resi, C&I, etc?
The main benefits of outsourcing are that we’re like the “easy button” for getting your solar and storage projects through the permitting challenges of your local jurisdiction or multiple jurisdictions and the interconnection process with the utility. As I mentioned earlier, we’re requirement experts, so give the paperwork and technical challenges to SepiSolar and you can focus on selling and installing.
We’re about 60% commercial, 30% residential, 10% utility and microgrid these days, but those numbers are seasonal, and we’re beginning to see more and more C&I storage, utility, and microgrid projects for consulting, as well as designs.
What issues do you see, when it comes to installers and developers trying to insource permitting and site surveying?
During a site survey, if certain details aren’t identified, it can drastically change the feasibility of an installation or system design. In many cases, these omissions aren’t realized until the contract is already signed, and that can have drastic effects on the profitability of a project. The success of a solar or storage project is often determined during the initial site visit and the development of the design and permit package. Without gathering the appropriate site-specific information and then applying that information to the design of a system, timely and costly corrections further on in the process become a high probability.
What are some common “red flags” that your team may be able to spot that might prevent solar installers from being able to install a project?
SepiSolar offers free electrical and structural “smell” tests for our clients. With detailed pictures of a site’s point of interconnection, switchgear and the building’s framing system, we can identify potential red flags that can drastically change the design of a system. Examples of this are whether or not there’s the ability for a line-side tap to avoid the 120% rule of a switchgear rating and if the structure’s framing system has the ability to handle the additional loads of a solar system.
What is SepiSolar’s strategy for publishing content on Energy Storage? How often are clients engaging you for storage projects?
As the folks at Energy Toolbase are well aware, there are many different types of storage technologies and applications, and in many ways, it’s still early days in the industry. This has created a strong need for trusted, high-quality education as the market continues to mature. I think that companies like SepiSolar and Energy Toolbase are working to fill that need by publishing trustworthy and well-researched content in our respective areas of expertise. Content marketing and thought-leadership is an important part of our marketing strategy, and a great channel for new customers to find us.
On the residential side, we’ve already designed over 300 projects to-date. We’re engaging with many financiers of residential storage projects and their installer partners. On the C&I side, we’ve designed/engineered dozens of projects with many more in the pipeline. Some are about to qualify under new a regulation that we helped advance at the CPUC to allow batteries to export power into the grid under NEM (the first of its kind). We’ve also done work on the utility side of meter storage projects. So we’re involved in a diverse range of storage projects, working with many new technologies and across many different jurisdictions. Hence the need to publish great content and education, so the entire storage industry can continue to mature and scale.