Strengthing Your Solar Supply Chain

Selecting the Highest Value Aluminum Extrusion Racking and Support Systems Supplier

Competitively meeting the growing demands for large-scale PV installations requires a comprehensive assessment of your supply chain partnerships, including your aluminum-extruded racking system supplier. Your project’s success and company’s reputation depend on suppliers that can add value beyond the cost of parts. With so much at stake, assessmeStrenghting-your-solar-1nt criteria for your supply chain partners need to go beyond simple cost-of-parts and instead address total-cost-of-purchasing.

According to Greentech Media and the Solar Energy Industries Association’s 2013 Solar Market Insight Year in Review report, PV installations increased 41 percent over 2012. As the solar market grows, so do the aluminum extrusion suppliers supporting the racking system manufacturers. More choices often lead to more confusion.
You — and the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) partners working with you — can mitigate supply chain risk and turn your supply chain partner for aluminum extruded PV racking and support systems into a competitive advantage by being mindful of the following criteria.

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Shine a Light on Your Suppliers
Managing your supply chain starts with critically examining your potential partners. Project developers pay suppliers millions of dollars for racking systems, so it’s good business to gather solid facts about the viability of your supply chain. When selecting your extruded aluminum supplier, learn as much as possible about its manufacturing capabilities, capacity and financial health. Understand its quality processes, delivery performance and successes and failures with PV racking and support systems. Insist on references. Ask about the aluminum extruder’s relationship with its raw material supplier. Seek performance data that can give you insights into increased risk and potential extended installation time, including product manufacturing defects, shipping delays or too much product shipped at once.

Also determine the “commitment” level the manufacturing supplier has to the solar market and how long it has been working in the industry. Determine if the supplier has the resources to support your project, as well as in-depth knowledge of the renewable energy market. To ensure your project isn’t delayed, it is important to know in advance if the supplier’s work in other market segments could dominate its manufacturing capacity.

Bring all Partners Together
Once you select your racking support system supplier, it will provide great value if you meet with the developer, EPC and supplier altogether to discuss project details. A conversation about the component manufacturing time line, shipping and delivery schedule and on-site assembly, can go a long way to mitigating risk and help to ensure your solar field installation goes as smoothly as possible. Thinking through these decisions show stakeholders that as the project developer, you have a plan in place to reduce supply chain risk, while supporting project success throughout construction.

Determine Your Optimal Racking System
Developers need to factor in power generation needs, site terrain and location climate when choosing a racking system. The geographical location and site design will define the need between tracking systems or fixed-tilt structures to create the best solution for capturing the most solar energy. An installation site with inclement weather, such as in the Midwest, can affect a racking system with moving parts to track the sun and may require more maintenance than a fixed-tilt system. If you need a PV panel support structure for a carport roof system in the Southwest, a fixed-tilt racking system may be a good solution.

strenghting-your-solar-2Analyze Costs for Each Racking System
To ensure solar projects are installed properly, on time and within budget, project developers need to analyze the costs for each racking system, along with the supplier offerings, to choose the best supplier for their needs. Critical aspects of analyzing cost in the solar supply chain need to go beyond purchase price. Developers and EPCs should fully understand their component manufacturing needs and work closely with the suppliers who perform them.
Understand if additional fabrication processes, such as machining, finishing or welding, will be performed in-house or by the supplier’s partners. If requiring outside services, these added manufacturing processes can increase shipping costs, timelines and handling, which allows more opportunity for damage. Having multiple manufacturers in your supply chain can inadvertently cause project delays and cost overruns. To maintain better control over the supply chain, consider working with an aluminum extrusion supplier that offers multiple services to meet your project needs.

Determine Strategic Approaches to Shipping
It is also critical that the developer or EPC determine the shipping schedule in advance. Will the components be shipped all together, or will they be delivered in sets of smaller shipments that are easier to manage on-site as the installation progresses? A staggered delivery schedule may be preferred to ease off-loading and installation timing at the jobsite. Components shipped all at once need to be stored on-site or nearby until the racking systems can be installed. In addition, having someone on-site to manage delivery and assist in off-loading the support structures can ease site installation issues.

Have a Backup Plan
It is helpful for developers to plan for unforeseen problems within the supply chain. Make sure to have back-up plans in place incase the component supplier can’t get the raw material they need to make your racking components. You should also have a backup component supplier in mind if yours goes out of business (it’s happened), or if a severe weather event, such as tornado or flooding, affects their manufacturing facility. Check to see if they have additional facilities to supply your racking components. A risk analysis model can be as detailed or as simple as you choose. Just make sure you have taken the time to develop one.

strenthing-your-solar-3Seek an Experienced, Vertically Integrated Supplier
Increased costs of managing a solar installation project can be attributed to outsourcing component manufacturing from multiple suppliers. Managing these complex relationships can be a difficult challenge, taking a significant financial and logistical toll on the project developer, slowing time-to-site-readiness and driving up the costs. Instead of having different suppliers doing specific things, project developers and EPCs should select a partner that offers a vertically integrated supply-chain solution, adding extra value to the developers’ needs by doing more of the component manufacturing for them.

That means project developers and EPCs should evaluate suppliers based on industry expertise as well as total-cost-of-purchasing criteria instead of the cost of the parts. They should work with a component supplier that combines manufacturing expertise with value-added services like ease of purchasing, engineering assistance, production, finishing and strategic shipping.
Properly assessing your ideal supply chain partners requires that developers and their EPCs devote much needed personnel and financial resources, but selecting the best supplier for the job is worth it. Making informed decisions about your supply chain partners will help reduce risk, keep construction timelines on schedule and ensure site installation quality, which will generate and deliver the renewable solar energy you are expecting.

Mark W. Turley, solar market leader, Alexandria Industries, helps solar project developers and EPCs bring to life effective supply chain and cost management strategies. With more than 30 years of experience in the solar industry, he has developed and deployed millions of pounds of aluminum-fabricated product for solar projects in the United States and Europe. Turley can be reached directly at 623.565.3356 or mturley@alexandriaindustries.com.

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