Fueling the Future with Continental Energy Solutions

The Sun emits enough power onto Earth each second to satisfy the entire human energy demand for over two hours. Given that it is readily available and renewable, solar power is an attractive source of energy. Historically, solar energy harvesting has been expensive and relatively inefficient. New technological advances over the last twenty years have driven this increased reliance on solar by decreasing costs, and new technological developments promise to augment this solar usage by further decreasing costs and increasing solar panel efficiency.

More and more corporations across the United States are switching to renewable energy—such as wind and solar—to cleanly and cost-effectively power their companies. By adding renewable energy to their facilities or entering into contracts to buy or invest in off site renewable energy, businesses are helping to usher in a clean energy future.

That’s good news for business and even better news for the planet, because now more than ever, it’s vital we embrace and promote renewable energy. Pollution from fossil fuels directly contributes to a warming planet, causing ocean levels to rise and weather to hit extremes. So if we continue on this fossil fuel trajectory, we face a fundamental threat to animals, habitats, and ourselves.

The great thing is, a growing list of organisations have recognized this, and are setting aggressive renewable energy goals. Some even have 100% renewable energy objectives. But they face challenges in reaching these goals. To achieve them, companies will need more than 70% of energy to be delivered through the power grid.

In order to understand the challenges and opportunities ahead, we spoke to Tim Montague, President of Continental Energy Solutions, the leading solar installer and EPC in Illinois to understand the solar power market and how we can capitalize upon it.

Tim Montague

Our project portfolio includes both rooftop and ground mount systems for big-box retail, warehouse, and campus solutions. With our experienced team and extensive project portfolio, we can build a solar solution for every customer to meet any challenge.

Aspioneer (A): What do you think is the outlook for Solar Energy in the US Market?

Tim (T): Currently, the US solar industry employs about 250,000 people and generates tens of billions of dollars of economic value. By the end of September 2019, the US had deployed over 2 million solar PV systems, totaling about 71,300 MW of solar capacity, and generating over 100 TWh of electricity. A further capacity of 5 GW was added in 2020, despite the pandemic. Of all renewable energy generation, solar PV is expected to grow the fastest from now to 2050.

Total installed U.S. PV capacity is expected to more than double over the next five years as grid interconnection queues from California to Texas to the Mid Atlantic are full of solar projects. Thus, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that solar PV installer will be the fastest growing job between 2018 and 2028, with a median annual wage of over $42,000.

California and Texas themselves would account for almost one-third of new capacity. This shows the enthusiasm for the technology.

A: It seems there is great enthusiasm for solar energy in the market. So what is holding solar energy back? What are the biggest challenges faced by solar in the current market?

T: Today solar energy has reached the point where its growth is no longer constrained by technological capability. The biggest challenge hampering the adoption of solar technology on a massive scale are the soft costs. The availability of skilled workers, the laborious regulations, quality control, these are some of the biggest issues the industry is currently facing. The good thing is that these are solvable problems. It is a low hanging fruit which can be resolved by having clear and consistent engagement between the industry and the regulators.

A: The solar energy industry seems to be constantly changing. How is solar energy evolving from a technological perspective?

T: Technology shift in the solar industry has been taking place rapidly across the globe. Higher efficiency products are gaining market share, and costs are dropping quickly. The newer products are not only more efficient, but their benefits include longevity and the ability to reduce BoS (balance of system) costs.

Polycrystalline cells have peaked in terms of their achievable theoretical efficiency. Mono PERC cells have a much higher theoretical efficiency threshold, and there is still a long way to go before it is maxed out.

The next step up for solar cells would be n-type heterojunction technology (HJT) silicon solar cells. Heterojunction cell technology combines the advantages of crystalline silicon cells and thin-film technology within a single cell structure. This means efficiency levels of over 25% are now within reach. Where a conventional crystalline solar cell uses a single material, silicon, in an HJT cell, the junction is formed between two different materials: crystalline and amorphous silicon, with the junction, therefore referred to as a heterojunction. This creates numerous performance benefits compared to conventional cells.

A: In a rapidly evolving market, transparency is always a major issue. How is Continental Energy Solutions positioned to dispel such concerns?

T: Our Energy Solutions division offers an unbeatable team of engineers, project managers, and field supervisors, including a NABCEP Certified installation Professional, the gold standard in the solar industry. Together, our team works to provide our customers with clearly outlined costs, energy savings, and overall project ROI. We have built over 50 solar PV projects, many solar plus battery storage solutions, and installed over 350 electric vehicle (EV) chargers. Our project portfolio includes both rooftop and ground mount systems for big-box retail, warehouse, and campus solutions. With our experienced team and extensive project portfolio, we can build a solar solution for every customer to meet any challenge.

A: What were some of the major projects your team has worked on and what was their impact? 

T: Our projects span the spectrum, residential and commercial. Our 1.99 MW rooftop solar project with IKEA produces about 2,334,081 kWh of clean electricity annually, the equivalent of 1,915 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. IKEA owns and operates

each of its solar PV energy systems as opposed to a solar lease or PPA (power purchase agreement).

ABT Electronics added a 100,000 sq. ft. warehouse in 2015 and seized the opportunity to install a large solar array plus battery storage system (ESS). Solar energy augments their other green initiatives which include LED and natural lighting with skylights. The battery system installed provides a source of revenue via grid services called ‘frequency regulation’ and provides backup power in the case of grid outage.

North Central College’s 563 kW solar array provides 22 percent of the electricity for Res/Rec, the largest building on campus. The LEED Silver building houses a 265-bed dormitory wrapped around an indoor running track, multipurpose athletic courts, training room, and fitness center. Its impact is equivalent to 12,021 Trees cleansing the air. The 250 kW battery storage system also provides passive income from grid services and backup power.

Thanks to extensive renovations including the addition of an 81 kW solar array, Kresge Hall is the Northwestern University’s first LEED platinum building and the 11th to earn LEED certification between the Evanston and Chicago campuses. The storied building has been transformed from a rite of passage to a modern, comfortable and healthy environment for the campus community.

A: What are the current myths about Solar Energy that annoy you the most?

 T: As the saying goes, “the wind is always blowing somewhere.” Renewable energy sources have suffered from being mislabeled “intermittent,” which makes them sound unreliable. However, while it’s true that the sun doesn’t always shine, thanks to the regional grid, clean energy may be powering your home, even if the wind turbine near your home isn’t spinning.

It’s also true that renewables aren’t vulnerable to fluctuating fuel prices and other cost uncertainties inherent in fossil fuel and nuclear plants. You could say that the unfavorable economics of coal, for example, has made those power plants “intermittent resources.” When the price of fracked gas goes up again, those plants will also run more intermittently.

When you add the benefits of battery storage to renewable energy sources, their reliability and efficiency only increases. For instance, nighttime is a time when wind is more steady, yet electricity use is low. When you add battery storage, you can generate electricity and store it for times when electricity demand is higher, meaning that you can take advantage of the wind or sun when it’s available, regardless of the current demand.

A: How should people be thinking about the solar energy industry as a whole? 

T: It’s time for us to jump into the 21st century and recognize that renewables are mature, affordable, and reliable technologies. Energy storage is proliferating and does a better job of integrating renewables into the grid than any gas plant would; that’s because it has greater flexibility and can be added wherever it is needed on the system far more efficiently than huge power plants. That’s how we will save this planet, the only planet we have.

A: Thanks Tim, for sharing your thoughts with us.

*This interview has been edited and paraphrased for brevity and clarity

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