Schletter is a 40-year-old privately held manufacturer with a 30 percent market share of the European photovoltaic mounting equipment market, according to the firm. 

Mounting systems are not the most exciting components in the solar industry, but a 30 percent market share is pretty breathtaking. And as the largest firm in this market, Schletter claims to have shipped five gigawatts of mounting systems worldwide.

Also exciting, despite the somewhat mundane nature of the product, is the fact that mounting systems can account for 7 percent to 10 percent of the cost of the entire installed solar system. That borders on the same proportions as the $6 billion inverter market.  And that makes mounting systems a large growth market with its own set of innovations and competitive pressures.

Schletter builds mounting systems for tilted and flat rooftops as well as ground-mount installations such as solar farms, landfills, and carports.

As module prices continue to drop, balance of system costs move more to the foreground, and that applies to inverters, wiring, and mounting gear.

I spoke with Wolfgang Fritz, the VP of Engineering at the firm. Schletter does pre-assembly of up to 70 percent of the system. He noted that aside from working to lower the costs of the extruded aluminum framing, a change in mounting methods or a small reduction in labor time can translate to something of significance when repeated 25,000 times in a utility-scale setting. 

Since the components are made mostly of aluminum, a volatile commodity, Schletter's purchasing group does its best to lock in prices on commodities with long-term contracts. 

"We try to innovate in installation hardware like clamps, claws and rails," said Fritz, adding, "We also try to cut out material without sacrificing mechanical integrity." Cost reductions will also come in streamlining and automating production, according to the Engineering VP.
Why the goat image, you ask? According to Fritz, goats and sheep are actually used in grounds maintenance instead of lawn mowers at solar farms in Europe and elsewhere. It turns out that sheep are fluffy and peaceful, while goats eat as much balance of system as is available, including tasty wires and cables. Goats have also been known to jump on top of the panels and break them in their quest for goat food. Hopefully, the goats are eating cables at night when they are not energized.

MJ Shiao, Greentech Media's senior livestock analyst, provides a chart:

  Goats Sheep
Harvest milk, cheese wool, mutton
Aesthetics horns, beards soft, fluffy
Solar Knowledge poor better

Other vendors in this sector include Unirac, PanelClaw, startups Sunlink, Zep Solar and many others.

Schletter is a 1500-employee firm based in Germany; the firm also has a 70,000-square-foot U.S. office in Tuscon, Arizona with more than 60 employees. All products shipped to North American customers are made in North America.


Detailed explorations of the PV inverter and balance of system sector will be presented at Greentech Media's Solar Summit in Palm Springs, Calif., March 14 and 15.