Future Forward Full Interview: Learning Through Doing: Solar Farms and Curriculums
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Alan Russo is senior vice president of sales and marketing at REC Solar, which recently partnered with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to build a new 18.5-acre solar farm that will generate more than 11 million kWh per year—about 25 percent of Cal Poly’s electricity needs, producing $10 million in savings over the life of the system.
V1 Media: Can you provide a brief professional background?
Russo: I have a degree in Aerospace Engineering from Austin University. I worked for American Power Conversion, now a division of Schneider, for 13 years in the United States, three and a half years in Ireland, five and a half years in Japan, and then two years in China as Regional General Manager for North Asia.
Then I worked for Bloom Energies for 10 years. I was the second person in sales after the head of the department was hired into that group. And I had various leadership positions culminating as vice president of strategic accounts for the Northeast. And then I joined REC, where I’m SVP of sales and marketing.
V1 Media: What does REC Solar do, and what do you do for them?
Russo: REC is 100-percent owned by Duke Energy. We’re part of the Duke Energy Renewables Division. We are essentially the customer side of the meter arm to Duke Energy. REC got its humble beginnings 20 years ago doing exclusively solar. We’re still principally a solar EPC [engineering, procurement and construction], but we also do all of the customer acquisitions, which is where I come in. I head up demand generation and sales.
We do sales, construction, finance and O&M [operations and maintenance], so we’re sort of ‘end to end’ in that regard. We do solar, we do solar plus storage, and we’re starting to introduce offsite renewables through Duke Energy.
V1 Media: Please describe REC’s technology and how it’s different from other solar technology.
Russo: The ‘dirty secret’ is that [solar technology] is fairly standard. We work only with Tier One modules, Tier One inverter technology. That speaks both in our own quality standards and Duke Energy’s sophisticated view toward long-term asset ownership.
Duke Energy is a $27 billion company, with $50-billion-plus in assets. They’ve got 4 gigawatts worth of renewables under management.
By looking at projects from the perspective of being an energy company and not just a solar construction group, the customers that we call on are looking to execute a broader energy strategy and, as part of that, a renewable energy strategy. That not only helps them attain certain sustainability goals, but also competitive advantage in the markets that they compete.
We are fundamentally an energy company in our DNA, and we have the ability to inform that conversation at a lot of different levels. So we have to compete just like everybody else, sophisticated or unsophisticated, on price and design and quality. But we bring a higher value-add to the engagement. And that’s what we really pride ourselves on.
V1 Media: Could you briefly describe how a solar farm is built in ways that infrastructure engineers in our audience might be able to relate to?
Russo: So there are a couple different flavors of project. There’s the solar farm as we just built at Cal-Poly: that’s 4 and 1/2 megawatts. In this case, we deployed a tracking system. Solar panels have to mount to something that can either be fixed with regards to its angle to the sun, or it can have a mechanism that allows you to follow the sun, maximizing the amount of solar energy you can get over the course of the day—as the sun makes its arc in the sky.
And then that can connect either directly to a customer meter or directly into the utility. But in every case, the customer’s economic benefit is realized from lowering their delivery cost of energy. Because you take all the asset costs of the solar panel; you divide that by the number of kilowatt hours that the solar panel produces over the course of a year; and therein is your fully delivered cost of electricity. Because there is no cost for fuel.
Particularly in states like California or in the northeast, that unambiguously tends to be lower than you would otherwise pay to the utility.
V1 Media: How long did it take to build the Cal-Poly solar farm? Is that a good location for solar?
Russo: It’s an outstanding location for solar from the standpoint of its geography and the fact that it was essentially an open field with good soil. [A solar farm] has to anchor to something, and good soil makes for a very prospective anchoring system.
V1 Media: How did REC Solar get involved with schools and universities?
Russo: It’s a factor of knowing the markets we serve. But in Cal-Poly, specifically, we’re literally right next door. And our DNA runs deep with Cal-Poly, given that our founders came from Cal-Poly, and about half of our engineering organization are all Cal-Poly graduates. So we feel like we have a fundamental understanding of that location and that organization’s needs.
In fact, the lead engineer on that project worked as his thesis a project to study what a “net zero campus” would look like. So, this project, from his perspective, was 10 years in the making.
But in terms of schools, in general, the CSU [California State University] system is in the process of qualifying a short list of qualified bidders for their campuses, and we’ve successfully become one of the qualified bidders. And then there are a number of consultants that run, on behalf of the school systems, very professional solicitations. And we’ve built excellent relationships with them to understand the market-winning solutions. We’re pretty proud of our recent wins in that sector as well.
V1 Media: What is a power purchase agreement, and how does that work? How does that pay for the installation and operations? And is the Cal-Poly agreement any different from other such arrangements?
Russo: The Cal-Poly deal is a pretty typical power purchase agreement.
A power purchase agreement allows a customer or an off-taker to purchase their electrons through the meter just the way they do from the utility. So it allows you to build a solar plant on your property and buy electricity the same way you do today from a utility. But instead of buying from the utility, you’re buying your electricity from the owner of the solar plant.
So there is an owner, in this case called Duke Energy. It will pay for the materials and the construction of the solar plant, and then they will be the owner for a period of 20 years. And then over the course of 20 years, they will sell the electricity at agreed upon rates to, in this case, Cal-Poly or the off-taker. Sometimes with an escalator, sometimes without an escalator—that’s all part of the commercial negotiations.
There is actually something unique about the Cal-Poly offering that I think would be interesting for your readers. Cal-Poly has a philosophy of “learn through doing.” So we actually incorporated within the power purchase agreement curriculum development and a laboratory. Enabling them to learn about renewable energies through both laboratory and work that they would be doing in conjunction with the solar panels that we’ve just installed. So that’s a little unique in this case.
The financial structure is pretty straightforward. But specifically for Cal-Poly, given that their mission is education, we had a very specific eye to helping them aid in that mission. In fact, that’s something we’ve looked to do for every school bid, wherever we can.
V1 Media: What is a solar curriculum, and how does REC Solar help develop one with the university? And what are other ways that students and faculties are involved in these projects?
Russo: A solar curriculum ultimately is something we develop in collaboration with the faculty. It’s going to focus on the operation of a solar panel, at the panel level, and then it will go on to talk about how it would interconnect into the grid, the various pathologies in which it would interconnect: the customer side of the meter; the utility side of the meter; how tracking systems work; how it enables you to maximize the amount of energy that you realize.
I’m not sure if it goes into the project economics or not, but that certainly would be something that I think would be interesting and worth contemplating.
But we will take the students through the development of a solar project and let them learn from all the inputs and outputs that actually make a successful project.
V1 Media: How do you see solar energy fitting into the global energy economy?
Russo: There’s a revolution afoot in energy. There’s a breathtaking amount of really cool renewable energy technologies or clean energy technologies that are becoming viable. And solar is an anchor within that spectrum.
But it’s an “and” strategy. So wind is always going to be there. Solar is always going to be there. Those are free-fuel renewable generation sources. So they have, by way of no input costs, very compelling fundamental economics in the markets where they work.
But those are intermittent sources. Solar doesn’t produce electricity when the sun’s not out. Wind doesn’t produce electricity when the wind’s not blowing. So these will be coupled with other technologies that are also rapidly evolving.
There’s a lot of really cool stuff being done now in energy storage: lithium-ion batteries, flow batteries and other mechanisms to store utility-scale power over time. And then this scales all the way down to smaller energy systems that would go onto a building in conjunction with solar panels that you would put onto a building.
So there are new generation technologies coming online that are clean, that run off of natural gas, that generate power at the point of consumption—right at the building. There are onsite renewables from the standpoint of attaching the solar systems to the facilities that consume it. And then there’s utility-scale solar, which is more akin to what Cal-Poly did, where it’s not necessarily connected directly to the facility in which it’s used—but put into a grid that then uses it.
So all these emerging energy technologies are creating a new spectrum of opportunities or options for end users who want to invest in that direction themselves or the utilities themselves that are looking to cost-effectively deliver renewable power.
V1 Media: What needs to be done more in the next five years and perhaps the next 20 years to make solar energy more accessible and used by more people?
Russo: If costs continue to come down, it’s going to become more accessible. And as utility rates continue to increase, that spread will allow us to serve a larger and larger portion of the market.
There’s a lot of policy work that continues to be done that encourages the adoption of renewable energy. And that creates a receptive environment for customers who want to go green and do so in the process of saving money.
We would hope to see over the course of time that the markets are allowed to sort out the winners and losers themselves. Solar is no longer a nascent technology that I think needs policy support. Customers have decided they need it. Technology decides that it works, and then it’s efficiently going to figure out how to deliver the best value to customers.
So I think less direct intervention beyond policy work that creates a receptive environment and customer-level incentives. But I think the cost-reductions over time and the natural incremental improvements in the technology will continue to push adoption.