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NRG-backed Sunora: A Different Kind of Solar Construction Firm?

Can pre-assembling solar panels with racking systems inside a factory rather than at the job site make a big difference in reducing the cost of a solar power project? Sunora Energy Solutions, a joint venture between NRG Energy and GCL-Poly Energy thinks so, and the company just opened a factory it believes will help to set itself apart from other solar power plant builders.

Sunora inaugurated its headquarters and factory in Phoenix last week, and it intends to provide not just manufacturing but also power plant engineering and construction services to its customers.

Sunora’s presence reflects NRG and GCL-Poly’s expansion into the solar power plant construction business in North America. Within the past four years, New Jersey-based NRG has invested heavily in solar power plants, including the 290-MW Agua Caliente project in Arizona that is being built with First Solar’s panels and the 250-MW California Valley Solar Ranch project in central California that uses SunPower’s equipment. China-based GCL-Poly, one of the world’s largest silicon and silicon wafer makers, meanwhile, also has been aggressively pursuing project development opportunities worldwide.

NRG and GCL-Poly first announced the formation of Sunora back in February this year. In a Feb. 6 press release, NRG and GCL-Poly said they would each own a 50 percent stake in Sunora. In another press release dated Feb. 3 and provided by NRG, it said each company “will invest or contribute US$7 million of cash or in kind assets in Sunora and own 50 percent interest accordingly.”

Though Sunora is partly owned by NRG, which itself is a project developer, Sunora intends to attract other developers as customers, said Keith Bluford, vice president of sales and marketing. The company’s ties to NRG will not present a conflict of interest if its customers compete with NRG for contracts, he added. Sunora is working on NRG projects including a 26-MW plant in Borrego Springs, Calif.

Bringing manufacturing into its operation will set it apart from other engineering and construction firms, and it can significantly reduce the cost of a project, said John Plumlee, CEO of Sunora. In fact, Sunora’s approach could lower the installation cost by 15 percent to 40 percent, depending on the size, location and other aspects of the projects, Plumlee said.

“If you really are going to take the responsibility of dropping the installed cost, you can’t do that as a general contractor using a bunch of third-party stuff,” Plumlee said. “A lot of people are more system integrators who piece together projects that create a lot of layers and inefficiencies.”

Part of Sunora’s strategy is to pre-assemble solar panels with racks that NRG has designed at its factory. The factory will fabricate the racks and use solar panels made by others, and it will put them together before shipping them to a project site. This way, Sunora can better control the labor and transportation costs, particularly for projects that would otherwise rely on expensive labor from a union shop, Bluford said. Traditionally, builders would ship solar panels and racks to the construction site and assemble them there.

Part of the strategy, too, is to standardize rack-and-panel designs for ground and roof installations to also reduce costs, Bluford said. The company offers both racks that tilt solar panels to face the sun at a fixed angle and trackers that rotate the panels to follow the sun's movement throughout the day. 

The Arizona factory will serve projects primarily in the southwestern region of the country, and Sunora plans to open other factories to serve projects elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada. The Arizona facility has three production lines occupying 58,000 square feet of the factory, and its annual production capacity ranges from 40MW to 120MW, depending on the complexity of the projects, Bluford said. the facility has another 60,000 square feet of production space that Sunora could use to increase the annual capacity to 400MW.

The company faces tough competition since North America is a growth market that has attracted experienced solar project builders from Europe, where the solar market is much larger and mature. Competitors also include American firms that have gained scale through acquisitions of project pipelines, such as solar panel makers First Solar and SunPower, or SunEdison, which is a subsidiary of silicon wafer maker, MEMC. 



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