In 2020, the U.S. installed more solar than ever before – 19.2 gigawatts (GW) of capacity! And impressively, almost 70 percent of those additions came from utility-scale projects. The companies that build these projects aren’t the same type of installers you receive quotes from on EnergySage – while they technically install projects like residential solar companies, we in the industry most often refer to them as solar developers.
In this article, we’ll give you a quick overview of solar developers, the role they play in the solar industry, and highlight some of the top solar developers today.
- Solar developers play a key role in the solar industry
- Solar developers install larger projects than the average solar installation company, including utility-scale solar, commercial and industrial (C&I) solar, and community solar farms
- There are many steps involved with creating a large-scale solar project
What is a solar developer?
Simply put, solar developers are companies that build and install large solar projects. And by large, we mean…well, large. The average residential solar panel system is about 10 kilowatts (kW); in comparison, solar developers often work on projects that are multiple megawatts (MW, 1 MW = 1,000 kW), and involve hundreds or thousands of solar panels.
Generally, solar developer projects can be broken down into three separate categories:
- Utility-scale solar: solar power plants built to generate electricity for our power grid
- Community solar farms: solar projects built for local community solar subscription programs
- Commercial and industrial (C&I) solar: solar panel systems built for large businesses
Solar developer responsibilities
Installing projects at this scale isn’t as easy as putting solar panels on your home; in fact, many larger solar projects take years to build and get up and running. That’s not just because of the extra equipment and installation requirements – solar developers need to specialize in a few other areas to implement a successful project.
The first thing you need to install a big solar project? Land to build it on. Solar developers work directly with land owners to find the perfect spot for a solar project. And there’s a lot of consideration that goes into this step – you can’t plop thousands of solar panels anywhere. In addition to signing a lease agreement with the landowner, developers and their engineers need to ensure that they have easy access to utility infrastructure, that the land is flat enough and has good sun exposure, and the site isn’t located on (or in close proximity to) a floodplain or wetlands. Following site surveys and a potential environmental review of the project, developers need to also work with local governments to secure necessary permits to start construction.
Just as you might obtain a solar loan to finance your home solar installation, developers work with investors, banks, and other lenders to solicit the financing they need to build and maintain a project.
Don’t be fooled by the analogy we made earlier: securing financing for a large scale solar project is, unsurprisingly, more involved than taking out a loan for a residential solar installation. To obtain financing, developers typically need to prove financial viability of the project and demonstrate how they–or their investors–will make a profit. Financing for large-scale solar projects also often comes in at different stages of development, rather than all at once.
Engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC)
Engineering, procurement, and construction, often referred to by the shorthand EPC, basically covers the bulk of the actual construction process for a utility-scale, C&I, or community solar installation. A lot of steps fit under this umbrella, including project design, obtaining equipment and labor to build the system, and installing all the components necessary to get the project up and running. Some developers outsource these responsibilities to an EPC-specific company, while others handle it in-house.
Top five solar developers in the U.S.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of what a solar developers is, here are the top solar developers in the U.S., according to installed capacity in 2019:
7X Energy is a solar developer headquartered in Austin, Texas. The company specializes in developing utility-scale solar and solar-plus-storage installations. As of March 2021, 7X Energy has more than 800 MW of energy projects operational throughout North America.
Silicon Ranch is a solar energy developer located in Tennessee, with projects spread across the U.S. Remember when we mentioned that some larger-scale projects have thousands of solar panels? According to their website, Silicon Ranch has installed over two million modules!
AES Distributed Energy
AES Distributed Energy has been around since the 1980s. A public company headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, they’ve made a name for themselves in the utility solar-plus-storage space – in fact, more than half of their new clean energy projects include a storage component.
Like EnergySage, Nexamp is a solar company headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. The company is well-known in the industry for its community solar projects, but they also build C&I rooftop installations, carports, and provide EPC services for other companies. Fun fact: Nexamp projects are listed for subscription on our Community Solar Marketplace.
Carolina Solar Energy
Carolina Solar Energy is, of course, based in North Carolina. Most of their projects are located in the Southeast. With systems spread between NC, KY, and VA, the company can boast roughly 500 MW of installed capacity, with more on the way.
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