Commercial storage applications overtake residential installations

Solar Show recap: C&I is where it’s at

A summary of our panel discussion with IBC Solar, Victron Energy and SAPVA to analyse trends at this year’s expo. If you’re a TL;DR kind of person, why not click here to go straight to the podcast.

The Solar & Storage Live Africa expo was, in a word, MASSIVE. Like, wear-your-most-comfortable-pair-of-shoes-because-you’re-going-to-get-those-steps-in massive. Maybe you missed the show entirely, or didn’t have enough time to visit all 5 halls, or perhaps you want to know what other industry professionals learned from the three-day exhibition. Don’t worry, we have you covered!

We invited three key industry players to an online Alumni event last Thursday, to give us their take on the current and future trends in PV in South Africa. Each guest represented the industry from a different perspective: Daniel Haitzler from IBC Solar is a distributor, Armand Diedericks from Victron Energy came at the topics as a manufacturer and De Wet Taljaard from SAPVIA contributed his insights on the industry body as a whole. Here are our key takeaways from the discussion.

Industry shift to C&I WITH storage

Where last year’s market was driven by residential demand, this year’s visitors showed a high interest in products suited for the commercial and industrial (C&I) space.

While installations were predominantly grid-tied in the past, built to benefit from direct solar to power operations during daylight hours, there is now a strong move into commercial storage applications; as Daniel notes “It’s in the name of the event – Solar & STORAGE Live – where it used to only be called Solar Show Africa.”

Upwards of 85% of C&I projects are now incorporating a battery energy storage component. And the bigger the storage solution, the more financially viable the system. The new Power Conversion System (PCS) solutions being introduced to the market right now can provide battery storage systems with charge and discharge capacity of up to 1MW at any given time, charge and discharge.

The enormous system sizes that come into play at this level can seem daunting, so we recommend a 3-day advance course called Commercial PV System Design to give you that solid foundation before you pitch for your first project. In this course we cover system design using software, planning, civil and electrical considerations as well as procurement and site management.

It’s about more than loadshedding

In the residential market, the demand for solar is unfortunately linked to the frequency and intensity of loadshedding. In the C&I sector, however, the reasons for the uptake of battery energy storage systems (BESS) extend beyond operational continuity during power outages, and into tariff shifting and beating demand management tariffs.

All three guests emphasised that loadshedding should not be the primary driver to convince a client to adopt a solar solution. “Your message to clients should be about sustainable energy production,” said Daniel, “and then it should also become a paper case where you show your client ways to use energy more efficiently in other areas – LED lights, and so on. Even if there is no more loadshedding, power prices will still go up by at least 10% every year.”

“Loadshedding should not be the primary driver to convince a client to adopt a solar solution.”

This tied in perfectly to GREEN’s message to expo visitors to “Build a business that can thrive beyond loadshedding”. Which is why we developed the Solar Business Management course that we premiered at the show. And we’ve enlisted founders, CEOs and managers of their own successful PV businesses as trainers for this course to give you expert practical guidance on the tasks and challenges that await you when your business grows.

Antje Klauss-Vorreiter, Founder and CEO of GREEN Solar Academy, moderated the panel discussion.

Increase your revenue with O&M plans

“You need to find ways of diversifying your revenue outside of pure new installations; think of annual inspections, service level agreements (SLAs), O&M contracts, asset management, so you can add to your offering and insulate your business from that variability in demand that we are seeing,” suggests De Wet.

To offer the services mentioned above, tools like inverter-agnostic monitoring platforms are vital, especially if you have a system composed of different brands, otherwise you’d need a separate portal for each item. Daniel recommends Meteo Control (a platform popular in Europe) for systems starting from 200kWp, or for EPCs offering operation and maintenance on multiple plants that all use different inverter brands. Armand also hinted that there is also some exciting new developments in High Voltage system monitoring coming from Victron in the future. (a platform popular in Europe) for systems starting from 200kWp, or for EPCs offering operation and maintenance on multiple plants that all use different inverter brands.

“You’re only as good as your monitoring system.”

Armand doubled down on this belief that you are “only as good as your monitoring system” by highlighting features of Victron’s GX Monitoring device: “You can monitor everything in your world – PV production, battery cycles, water usage. You can programme the device in an API and have a whole automation system. It’s an interface designed to help clients become more sustainable, and how to manage their energy better.”

The GX is not currently available for High Voltage systems, despite a well-placed hint from Daniel that “Victron has arguably the best energy management in the world and we’re hoping for a HV commercial solution from them 😊” to which Armand responded that exciting developments and better firmware on the horizon.

C&I brings rewards … and risks

The conversation then turned to identifying the biggest differences between the residential and C&I sector and everyone agreed that even if you have experience installing large and complex residential systems, moving into C&I means you are now operating as a risk-taking entity.

“Now you start operating as an EPC with service level agreements and performance guarantees in the future,” explained De Wet. “You need to understand the risk you’re carrying for yourself and your team from all the regulatory environments you are stepping into.

“Find out where you are exposing yourself to risks and then place those risks with the entity best geared to deal with them: for instance, in a large warehouse installation, understand the role that the civil engineer and structural signoff takes. In this way, you can protect your client and yourself.”

PV GreenCard fits into the existing regulatory framework

Installers who sign up to the PV GreenCard Programme are already one step ahead of competitors when it comes to decreasing their risk exposure.

During his presentation at the Installer’s University Theatre during the show, De Wet clearly defined the role of the PV GreenCard Programme within the confines of OHSA, the electrical installation regulations and the standards framework: “We are placing the PV GreenCard Programme on a much more sustainable route – firmly within the auspices of the regulatory environment.”

De Wet Taljaard, Technical Specialist: Solar Energy at SAPVIA, gave a presentation on PV GreenCard 2.0 at the show.

“There will always be a prominent role for private sector initiatives, and skills development and training programmes in our industry.”

“The PV GreenCard was conceived back in 2015, due to a vacuum in the standards framework. Up to today, there exists no SANS standard adequately governing a grid-interconnected solar PV system. Industry -driven skills programmes and quality assurance mechanisms will be around for as long as formal mechanisms are not in place. But even once they has been finalised, there will always be a prominent role for private sector initiatives, and skills development and training programmes in our industry.”

“There were lots of discussions about regulations on our stand,” agrees Armand Diedericks, Sales Manager at Victron Energy , “and how they are becoming stricter, how everything needs to proceed according to SANS. We were very proud to tell them that all Victron inverters are NRS approved.

“If you have the right products, and they’re safe, NRS approved – like Victron’s inverters – and you undergo training and approval processes through a partner like GREEN Solar Academy, that’s the right way to go!” said Daniel Haitzler, Managing Director at IBC.

Play the podcast for more

All in all, Solar & Storage Live Africa 2024 was a display of an industry that is becoming more cohesive, more connected, and this was perhaps nowhere demonstrated more clearly than on the Victron stand, where authorised installers and distributors pitched in to help field enquiries from the multitude of visitors to that booth alone.

Our panel discussion went into so much more detail than we’re able to put to paper. If you’re interested to find out more about the components meeting the needs of the C&I sector and the efforts of De Wet and SAPVIA with the PV GreenCard Programme 2.0, listen to the full podcast on our website.

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If there are topics YOU want us to discuss in an online alumni event, you can contact Tsakani Mashila on +27 (0) 10 312 6724 or info@solar-training.org with your ideas.