Written by Rick Peters

Small and Medium Commercial Solar Systems in Maryland

Building Owners – Your Time Has Come!

Deployment of both residential and large utility-scale solar systems has exploded in the last 10 years.  Much of that growth has been driven by policy and further sustained by scale and competition, which combine to continue bringing us cost reductions and technology advancements.  To provide some historical perspective on this, our installed costs today are 75-80% lower than 10 years ago, before any incentives are applied. 

With all that amazing progress, our industry still has not made similar inroads in the Commercial & Industrial (C&I) solar market.  Many believe that is about to change.  Washington, D.C. has led the way in this market segment with strong SRECs and a flexible rooftop Community Solar program that motivate building owners to monetize their rooftops.  Property owners enjoying these benefits include churches and non-profits who are going solar at a remarkable pace, despite their lack of tax liability.  Over the past several years, SES has installed more than 10MW of solar energy systems throughout the D.C. region, including several churches, apartment buildings and office/retail spaces.

Maryland has been noticing, learning from their neighbor that all this private investment in a cleaner and more reliable grid is something we should be incentivizing.  Increasingly over the last few years, Maryland has improved commercial solar economics with enhanced incentives, driving the urgency for property owners to act now to maximize their solar incentives.  Below is a quick summary of incentives and financing that exist for Maryland commercial property owners to act now on long term solar investments.

 

Tax Credits

  • Federal Investment Tax Credit (26% until Dec 31, 22% in 2021, 10% in 2022)
  • Maryland authorized a 2020 commercial storage tax credit to incentivize businesses to add energy storage to their solar investment

 

Grants from Maryland Energy Administration (MEA)

  • MEA provides solar grants of up to $20,000 based upon system size
  • MEA offers incentives for solar carports of up to $200,000

 

Production Incentives (SRECs)

In addition to the value of the energy produced, the system owner in Maryland also benefits from selling the environmental attributes of that clean energy in the form of solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs).  Legislation passed in 2019 in Maryland to increase the state’s clean energy goals has impacted the value of SRECs dramatically, further improving the economics for any system owner, regardless of tax appetite.

 

Financing

PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) is a program available in many Maryland counties to help property owners deploy energy improvements, even a new roof.  The loan is backed by the improvement and is paid back through a property tax assessment.  The return on the investment must exceed the loan payment to ensure positive cash flows for the building owner.  The financing is off-balance-sheet and does not require personal guarantees.  This underutilized program is a tremendous vehicle to make customer-owned energy investments with no out-of-pocket costs.

Solar Loans:  Solar has become one of the most reliable and predictable long-term investments around.  With projected annual returns for the building owner in the 10-20% range over 25 years, most banks are entirely comfortable loaning for commercial or residential solar projects.

PPA’s: Third-party entities will own and maintain solar systems for property owners, selling them the energy at a discount over the traditional supplier’s rate.  For commercial building and land owners, these Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) typically require relatively large projects to provide the necessary economics.

 

Aside from all the benefits above, there are two more strong business cases for solar investments.  First, aside from the money savings, if you can fix a large portion of your energy expense by investing in solar, you’ve giving your CFO more control over future expenses while locking out price increases from the supplier for that energy.  Secondly, by investing in solar, you are able to show your customers, your employees, your prospects and your recruits that you are committed to clean energy.  In this day and age, there is a truckload of value right there.

So don’t wait another minute.  SES is using technology to conduct remote meetings and preliminary evaluations in order to get budgetary numbers to prospective customers very quickly.  We currently have availability for projects to be complete this calendar year, but let’s not wait another minute people – commercial contracts signed in 2020 get to realize the full 26% Federal Tax Credit and highest SREC values.

In other words…Sunshine’s a Wastin’!

Written by Lisa Walsh

Solar Power for Maryland Car Wash

A 5-year payback for 25+ years of electricity?
That’s a no-brainer!

The year 2020 is the last year that commercial building owners can qualify for the 26% Federal tax credit and other solar incentives that, together, combine to offer an excellent return on investment.  Economics that work, speak for themselves.  In that spirit, let’s have a real-time, real-design, real-numbers, deep-dive into the solar conversation between SES and a Maryland business owner looking to decrease their utility costs.

The Status Quo…

Business:Car Wash
Utility Bill:~$4000/month
Roof Size:~8000 square feet
Roof Type:Flat, standing seam metal
Business Type:S-Corp (for-profit entity eligible for tax credit)

The Solar Solution…

Solar System:212 panels / 81.62kW
Upfront Cost:($172,200)
26% Federal Tax Credit:$44,902
MD State Grant:$12,043
Sale of SRECs:$54,000
Tax Depreciation Year 1:$42,070
25-Year Energy Savings:$346,954
Business Type:S-Corp (for-profit entity eligible for tax credit)

The Payback…

The questions from this building owner followed much the same track as most solar prospects: 

#1 = Economics: Is this good for my bottom line?  

#2 = Building Preservation: What risks are there to my building and/or daily operations?

#3 = Construction Process: Why SES and how long will it take?

E C O N O M I C S

Do I pay the whole amount upfront or are any of the incentives deducted first?

You are responsible for the $172,200 upfront cost upon contract execution.  Over 60% of the incentives are realized in YEAR 1 (tax credit, state grant, depreciation).  The remaining incentives (ongoing sale of SRECs and energy savings) recur throughout the 25-year warrantied life of the system (and beyond!).

How do I know I’m eligible for the Federal Tax Credit and 100% Year 1 equipment depreciation?

A quick phone call to your tax advisor will answer this.  Most for-profit businesses that owe Federal taxes have plenty of tax appetite, even if they carry some of the earned credits into future tax years.  In this case that is a $44,902 tax CREDIT (as opposed to the less valuable “tax deduction”).   NOTE:  2020 is the last year for a 26% credit – in 2021 it drops down to 22% and then 10% in 2022, but projects started in 2020 can carry the 26% credit into future tax years. 

What are SRECs?

SRECs = Solar Renewable Energy Certificates.  Their goal is to encourage building owner’s like yourself to invest in solar.  As per the legislated Renewable Portfolio Standard, each time any grid-tied solar system in Maryland (residential or commercial) generates 1MWhr of energy – the system owner earns  a tradable credit that is sold on a competitive SREC market.  Currently, an SREC in Maryland is worth $77 (or, 77% of the ACP – Alternative Compliance Payment, currently $100).  The 88.62kW system SES as designed for this car wash is slated to generate ~102 SRECs annually allowing the system owner to receive payment quarterly via an SREC aggregator such as Sol Systems in Washington DC.

Who buys my SRECs?

Ultimately, SRECs are purchased by electricity suppliers who are mandated by the State of Maryland (and various States throughout the US who have adopted the Renewable Portfolio Standard) to deliver a specific % of their energy from renewable sources.  They can do this in one or more of three ways:

  1. Build their own renewable energy plants
  2. Pay a fine (Alternative Compliance Payment currently at $100 per MWh here in MD)
  3. Purchase SRECs from currently operating solar systems (currently $77 per MWh)

For many of these electricity suppliers, the most cost-effective path is to buy your SREC.  They do not buy your SREC directly from you – but through an SREC aggregator (broker).  SES’s preferred aggregator is Sol Systems – although we are happy to support you in contracting with the SREC broker of your choice (SES has no involvement in your SREC contract after the initial setup).

How do I apply for the Maryland State Grant?

SES takes care of the paperwork requiring only your signature.  Grants are usually received several months following the application.

Are there any loan products available?

PACE financing is an excellent vehicle for small/mid-sized commercial solar projects.  The solar asset is financed with private financing and is repaid through the property’s tax account (much like a sewer or road assessment).    Some of the many benefits include:  cash flow positive from day 1, loan is off-balance sheet, no personal guarantees, little or no out of pocket costs, and the solar system asset and any loan balance, simply transfers with sale of building.

D E S I G N

How does the solar energy work to reduce my utility bill?

Your solar system has 3 major components:  the solar panels, the panel racking , and your inverter(s) that are usually installed near your electric panel/utility meter.  Your solar panels will generate energy as the sun shines on them.  This energy (DC/Direct Current) flows to the inverter whose job it is to convert this incoming DC energy to AC (Alternating Current) which is fully accessible both by the utility grid as well as all of your building’s electrical infrastructure/appliances.  At any point in time the solar energy will be immediately offsetting your electricity consumption with any and all excess energy flowing to your BGE meter and essentially spinning it backwards, generating credits with the utility.  This function is known as Net-Metering and ensures you receive full credit for 100% of the solar generated by your system.  Any credits will be used up at nighttime or during winter/low sun.

I am concerned about the risk of leaks due to penetrations on my flat roof.  How do the solar panels attach?

The current design utilizes a no-penetration attachment technique commonly referred to as “ballasted.”  The solar panels are attached to racks, which are designed to incorporate a number of concrete block/bricks that – along with the weight of the solar panels and racking – ballast or weigh the system to down to the roof without us having to pierce holes and attach to the substructure.

If you have a pitched asphalt shingle roof or a metal roof, you can rest easy.  We have time-tested racking solutions for each.  These fully-engineered systems take into account the building structural loads as is required for permitting.

What informed the choice of solar panels for my design – are there other options?

We chose a REC 385 watt solar panel for your project for these reasons:

  1. Economics: These are highly cost-effective solar panels, without sacrificing quality. There are, for example 400 – 450 watt panels that are either currently or about-to-be available.  However, when I plugged in the numbers for these higher-wattage panels, the increase in cost decreased the overall Internal Rate of Return.  In a nutshell, those extra 15 or so watts per panel were not worth the cost increase, when considering the project strictly on economics.  That said, some buyers choose to maximize energy production and the lifetime savings, even if it modestly degrades the 25 year economics (Internal Rate of Return).
  2. Warranty: Because SES is a certified REC installer, this bumps the manufacturer’s workmanship warranty from 20 to 25 years.  So these panels come with a 25 year performance (typical) AND 25 year workmanship (atypical) warranty from the manufacturer.  Most other panels – including higher wattage – do not offer this type of warranty

That said, SES offers a wide range of solar panels to meet all budgets and design criteria.

How will I know my solar system is working every day?

Your system will come with robust 25-year online monitoring.  Each day you will be able to see both your current and historical solar output.

What warranties come with the system?

  • Solar Panels = 25 year performance and 25 year materials and labor
  • Inverter(s) = 12 years (extension to 25 years are available)
  • Optimizers = 25 years
  • Installer Workmanship = 2 years for all workmanship items

What kind of maintenance does the system need?

As Solar PV systems have no moving parts, there are very few and infrequent maintenance items.  Your monitoring system (referenced above) will alert you to any errors in the system’s operations (we also have access to the online portal).  Some solar system owners, especially out of town investors, may elect to contract with us for an annual Service agreement with 2 site visits per year and accompanying reports.  However, most of our small/mid-sized commercial building owners simply monitor the systems and contact us with any questions as needed.  SES does have a dedicated Service Department with hourly services available to both our own customers as well as solar systems installed by the many solar contractors who may have come and gone over the years.

C O N S T R U C T I O N

What are the permitting requirements and how long do they take?

We typically allow 12 to 16 weeks for the design, engineering and permitting phases of the project.  Both building and electrical permits are procured through the county or city jurisdiction, and an interconnection permit is required through your utility company.

How long is construction?

An 81.62kW project such as this one would likely take around 4 weeks for material installation.  Inspections and approvals require another 3 – 4 weeks post-installation before the system can be energized.

It is safe to say this is a minimum 6-month project from contract signing through fully operational.

Will there be any disruption to my daily operations?

80% of the construction process takes place on the roof, so there will be little to no disruption to the daily operations taking place in the car wash.  Wiring of the solar system will require access to the Main Service Panel in your electric room.  Any temporary disruption to the electric service will be arranged with you ahead of time and completed during an agreed-upon time.

Are there any time constraints regarding the current solar incentives applied to my system?

Yes.  In order to qualify for the 2020 Federal Tax Credit of 26%, you must have a signed contract in place with us AND we need to have spent 5% of the total contract amount (permits/engineering) in 2020.

Additionally, the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS, which is state legislation that determines the length and the amount of SREC values) is designed to decline as more solar is installed and the State meets its clean energy goals.  In a nutshell, the sooner the system is energized, the sooner you can realize the near-term, highest SREC values.

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Written by Lisa Walsh

Developer’s Success Story – A Solar Integrated Green Roof in NE DC

By Lisa Walsh | Commercial Solar Developer | Solar Energy Services, Inc.

For the newly-finished Taylor Street Storage facility in North East DC, a 17,500 square foot green roof with fully integrated solar panel array that showcase a value-stacked, elegant design providing both a cost-effective solution to storm-water management. All without forfeiting the solar panels that generate income via federal tax incentives and DC’s superb solar production-based financial incentives.


With over three million square feet of green roofs in Washington DC and 50MW+ of solar installations – the City is no stranger to either technology. However, the integration of both on the same roof is less common, despite the symbiotic relationship between the two offering a number of advantages.


Beds of Sedums awaiting Fall planting at Taylor Street Storage, Oct 2018.
Photo Credit – David Gorman of Lock 7 Development

Completed 133.980kW Solar-Integrated Green Roof at Taylor St NE WDC
Photo Credit – David Gorman of Lock 7 Development

Storm-water Management


Approval for a commercial building permit in Washington DC must include a storm-water management plan as defined by DC’s Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE). For Taylor St, the Development team could have chosen between:

  1. Lost parking spaces to house costly underground containers for capturing and storing runoff
  2. Payment of ever-increasing storm-water management fees
  3. Implementation of a multi-layered Green Roof to treat 100% of the rainfall obligation with a perennial, sedum based plant surface – as per DOEE requirements.
    The green roof offered a cost-effective storm-water management solution that required no additions or demo’s to the existing structure.
    Solar Panels

Solar Panels

Most savvy developers realize that an empty roof in Washington DC is money left on the table. With the best solar financial incentives in the USA, the payback is rapid followed by years of production-based paydays. Small wonder that the development team at Taylor Street were interested if – and how – a solar array could integrate with a Green Roof. The good news is not only does the solar system seamlessly integrate with the green roof but the relationship is one of symbiosis and cost-effectiveness. Here’s why:

BALLAST. Most solar systems installed on DC’s commercial flat roof areas are ballasted. i.e. an assortment of concrete blocks, along with the weight of the solar panels and racking, is engineered to hold down the weight of the array with minimal or no penetrations to the roof membrane.
With close to 35 PSF of weight, a green roof more-than provides this ballast negating the need for concrete blocks or supplemental attachments. This is worth mentioning as the Green Roof is now a fully engineered component of the solar system bringing the question of tax credit eligibility into play. Is the Green Roof, or portion of, now eligible for the 30% Federal Tax Credit? Certainly worth conferring with a tax adviser.

A close up of the Solar System mounted into the soil on the roof.

CREATION OF A MICRO-CLIMATE: Furbish designs their perennially healthy green roofs with a wide palette of sedum species. These drought-resistant succulants require little maintenance and have varying requirements for daily sunlight – from full-sun to all-shade. Contrary to first impressions the intermittent shading and weather protection provided by the solar panels provide a micro-climate highly conducive to the plants underneath, in between and around the solar arrays.

DESIGN: Most ballasted solar systems have ample aisles between each row of solar panels insuring that each solar panel is optimized and avoiding shading from the panel row in front. Solar panels can also be tilted anywhere between 5 and 35 degrees. This is adjusted to account for shading, panel count and orientation considerations. This flexibility of design was helpful for integration the green roof. Aisle spacing, solar panel size and tilt were designed with the Green roof in mind – not only as it relates to healthy plants, but also for annual maintenance access requirements.

Established Example featuring similar product and design as Taylor Street


CHALLENGES: Solar-integrated green roofs are not as common as their singular counterparts. Fair to say this project did not come without some challenges


DOEE DESIGN STANDARDS: Department of Energy and Environment is responsible for DC’s Stormwater Management and insuring all DC buildings comply with runoff standards. The burden was on SES and Furbish to ensure that the solar arrays were not going to impede the ability of the plants to thrive and provide the necessary water retention requirements. The design and permitting side of the project insofar as panel tilt, aisle spacing and racking integration were designed in collaboration with DOEE.


INSTALLATION TIMELINES: Furbish Company are Green Roof specialist, Solar Energy Services, Inc. are solar specialists. Integrating these technologies took heightened coordination between our installation teams, mostly in terms of labor efficiency, communication and timeliness. The latter was particularly stringent as the Certificate of Occupancy, required to meet the developer’s lease requirements, was contingent upon the completion of the Green Roof which now included solar racking, wiring and panel installations. Throw in some PEPCO Permission to Install challenges related to the solar portion, and the pressure was on.


The project came with some unusual PEPCO interconnection timing challenges at the end. Ironically not related to the Green Roof aspect of the application. Nonetheless, this system is now outputting electricity like gangbusters. All’s well that’s ends well.