Zep Solar’s New Convert: Trina Solar

Zep Solar has signed a licensing and marketing agreement with Trina Solar that highlights two trends in the photovoltaic industry: Reducing mounting system materials and costs and offering pre-designed systems to distributors and installers.

Trina is incorporating Zep’s framing design (Zep Groove) into its solar panel production, and it plans to launch not only the panels but also a system of panels and Zep mounting gear in the third quarter of this year. Trina joins six other solar panel makers and integrators to incorporate Zep’s technology into their module and system offerings, said Daniel Flanigan, vice president of marketing at Zep. Other customers include Canadian Solar, ET Solar, CentroSolar, Up Solar and Eco-Kinetics.

The deal with Trina is a nice validation for Zep, which was founded in 2009 to simplify installation equipment and save time and money. Key parts of its offering, aside from the Zep Groove frame, include the interlocks to string together and automatically ground the panels, wire clips for anchoring the cable wires, and what it calls the “array skirt” that gives the front and public-facing part of the system a more polished look.

The company, based in San Rafael, CA, has launched racks for slanted and flat rooftops for residential and commercial market, and is looking for opportunities to do utility-scale projects. The plan isn’t to launch gear for utility-scale installations but to work with equipment suppliers and contractors to customize mounting hardware for specific projects, Flanigan said.

The company contracts with manufacturers in the United States to make its products, and has shipped 8 megawatts worth of prooduct since early 2010, Flanigan said. Most of the installations are in the residential rooftop space. Zep raised an A round of $7.4 million last year from investors including Aquillian Investments.

Mounting systems aren’t the most high tech part of a PV system, but they are getting more attention from installers, contractors and investors for their part in driving down costs of installations and solar electricity pricing. The solar industry is in a race to prove that solar electricity is not only a more eco-friendly energy but also can be affordable soon.

There is no agreement on how soon solar can be as cheap as power from power plants that run on coal and natural gas, but the Obama administration has set a goal of driving down the installation cost to $1 per watt for utility-scale projects by the end of this decade. The administration has asked Congress to boost funding for the U.S. Department of Energy for the 2012 fiscal year to help achieve this goal.

A mounting system usually makes up about 10 percent of the materials in a PV project, Juan Suarez, senior director of engineering and program management at Unirac, told me recently. Roughly 40 percent of the labor in a project goes to setting up the mounting gear and wiring. Overall a mounting system makes up about 25 percent of the total installation cost, he added. Unirac, based in New Mexico, also develops mounting systems and was bought by the Hilti Group, a construction tool supplier in Europe, last year.

Using Zep’s equipment can decrease the time to install a solar array itself (not counting inverters and other installation parts outside of the array) by five times, Flanigan said. Overall, the design cuts total installation time by half, he added.

Trina Solar also joins a club of solar panel makers who believe they could better market their core products by marketing them with equipment that makes up a solar power system. Suntech Power, for example, has done this by teaming up with microinverter maker, Enphase Energy. First Solar recently bought RayTracker and presumably will offer systems that make use of RayTracker’s single-axis tracking equipment. Until now, First Solar has been mounting its thin films in fixed-tilt gear.

Canadian Solar also sees an increasing demand from customers, particularly those in Canada and Japan, to get the key pieces of equipment for a power project from one source.

“They want to see a total hardware solution, so we provide modules, source components and do system designs,” said Shawn Qu, CEO of Canadian Solar, in an interview earlier this week.

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