Amid layoffs, some residential solar firms are outsourcing solar design

Outsourcing makes sense for startups and medium-sized companies.

Rob Barker

Residential solar workforces have been slashed amid the Covid-19 induced economic slowdown, prompting some rooftop solar companies to explore outsourcing solar design to independent contractors.

Maintaining existing rooftop solar project deadlines and keeping costs down is always important, but, in the face of the skyrocketing residential solar cancellations and residential solar installation postponements that started when lockdowns began in the U.S. in mid-March, it is paramount.

Young technician master in workwear bending over solar panel on the roof while adjusting handle

“[Currently] most companies are seeing a drop in sales, or their designers now have to work from home which makes training new designers almost impossible,” said Rob Barker, CEO of Three Line Design, an Orem, Utah-based residential solar design firm that launched a month ago, he said.

According to data aggregated by Ohm Analytics, solar permits have fallen substantially since the Covid-19 crisis began. Solar permits in California, for example, averaged 902 per week between January and March 2nd, but by the week ending March 30th, California’s weekly solar permit volume was at 536.

A man carrying a solar panel on a green construction site, working on a green building project.

For startup and medium-sized companies, outsourcing makes sense, Barker said. “You want to have strong designers to eliminate problems for your customers’ accounts, but to pay for a full-time designer gets costly [when you consider] the number of accounts you have per week for a designer to do,” he said. Fluent Solar and Solarise Solar have outsourced some their solar design to Three Line Design, he added.

Whether commoditizing residential solar design in this way will create long-term efficiencies or lead to lasting change will depend on the customer feedback loop. Due to the boom-bust nature of the U.S. residential solar market, it would be premature to make a call on the “new normal” in residential solar, said Josh Weiner, CEO of SepiSolar, a firm that generates about 20% of its solar engineering and design business from residential solar clients and the rest from the commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors.

Solar panels on suburban Italian home. Photovoltaic power plant. Regenerative energy system electricity generation.

Ultimately, Covid-19 might end up accelerating the pre-pandemic trend of outsourcing solar modelling. “In the solar modelling space, there was already more of a drive towards cost reduction due to competition within solar and with utility rates, and in- or out-sourcing can play a role in that,” Chris Hopper, co-founder of Aurora Solar, a software firm that has developed a suite of tools that lets customers remotely assess potential solar sites and model and price solar projects.

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