What do enterprise customers look for when they shop forsolar? Not just the best (and cheapest) panels money can buy.

George Waidelich, vice president of energy operations at Safeway, said one way to get his attention is to present him with a thoughtful sales pitch. Which can be hard to find.

For example, he would get calls from sales folks who seem ignorant of the Safeway organization, such as whether the grocery chain has stores in certain states. He also has dealt with project developers who weren’t forthcoming about key issues, such as whether financing was firmly in place.

“The solar sales force is not doing a good job doing their background search on prospective customers. Even though they know their specific products, they don’t always know what the customers are looking for,” Waidelich said.

Speaking at the Photovoltaics Summit 2009 in San Francisco this week, Waidelich and Kelly Mills from Whole Foods Market discussed their companies’ investments in solar power and other efforts to curb their greenhouse gas emissions and attract eco-conscious consumers.

Lining up all the necessary ingredients – from a trust-worthy project developer to selecting the right solar technologies – can take longer than expected.

Safeway’s first solar project, a 225-kilowatt system on the rooftop of its Dublin, Calif., store, took roughly a year to deploy between 2006 and 2007. At the time, Waidelich thought the company should be able to complete 40 solar projects by mid-2009. Instead, it has completed 14 so far, with at least that many under development, he said.

Here are some of the key points that Waidelich and Mills made, feedback that could help solar power project developers and equipment makers sharpen their pitches:

It’s not just about being green: Enterprise customers aren’t investing in clean power generation just because “it’s the right thing to do,” said Mills, who is the regional vice president for store development in Florida for Whole Foods. “My accountant said there is more than that. So we built a business case for it.”

Keeping those renewable energy credits: Companies such as Safeway want to make sure that they get to keep the RECs that come with their investments in renewable energy projects. Those RECs are valuable because they entitle the holders to offset their emissions or trade them for profit.

Financing solar: Buying a solar energy system outright isn’t always an affordable option. Then there is the headache of maintaining them. Safeway prefers to get solar power for its stores by signing power-purchase agreements with project developers, who install the systems on Safeway’s properties and are responsible for operating and maintaining them.

Mills, on the other hand, said either approach works for Whole Foods, which owns some of its own systems and gets solar electricity through PPAs as well.

Crystalline vs. thin-film solar: Both Whole Foods and Safeway choose crystalline silicon solar panels mainly because for their high efficiencies, or the rates at which the solar cells in the panels convert sunlight into electricity. That quality is attractive when rooftop space is limited. Mills said he would consider flexible, so-called solar membranes that can make use of odd-shape roofs.

Simpler system designs: Mills said inverters and cables in a solar energy system take up a lot of rooftop space. He would like to see smaller inverters and systems with more integrated components.


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