We recently returned from the sold-out NABCEP conference in St. Charles, and it was an incredible experience. We’ve been attending NABCEP for years now, but this was a particularly special year in which we got to lead an official technical training session, quiz the audience at our exclusive Wait Wait Don't Tell Me event, and connect with fellow attendees at our booth and beyond. For those who were unable to attend due to limited tickets or scheduling conflicts, we want to share our top five key takeaways from this year's event.
1. The labor shortage is even more dire than usual.
We know that labor shortage is no joke in the solar industry, but what we’ve heard at NABCEP and other conferences this season is that hiring is even harder than usual. In fact, a recruiter at Intersolar a few weeks ago told us there’s a 0% unemployment rate in solar right now.
There seem to be a few reasons for this. The first is that demand is simply outpacing supply. More solar is getting installed than ever before, and labor is lagging behind. However, another factor that we heard from installers is that, when it comes to the next generation, there’s been a de-emphasis on career opportunities in trade work. Young workers are not exposed to what an incredible opportunity the solar industry can be.
When hiring gets tough, one of the ways installers try to solve this strain on their business is by passing on higher wages to the consumer. However, solar businesses in our network have let us in on some secret strategies that will be better for your business long-term.
One approach that we heard about on the show floor is to experiment with new compensation models, so you can find the one that best aligns with your business. For instance, some businesses are transitioning to performance-based pay, paying contractors based on kW/install or per panel, instead of hourly wages. Other installers are rolling out employee ownership programs. If neither of these are quite right for your solar company, you may also consider offering bonuses for the number of projects that achieve PTO, thus incentivizing performance.
It may also be time to reevaluate where you’re hiring from. In one of our previous webinars, Arctic Solar Ventures, an installer based out of Alaska, shared that they often partner with local trade unions to find new talent. And this year at NABCEP, we even heard of solar businesses recruiting existing customers to join the business based on their passion for solar.
2. There's wide-spread consolidation of MLPE, battery, and inverter manufacturers.
Every solar installer has been caught between a battery and an inverter manufacturer as they point fingers. Your homeowner claims an issue under warranty, and as you try to help them resolve the issue, you’re caught in an endless blame game between vendors. There’s historically been a pretty big challenge in solar where there’s been panels, battery, inverter all with different manufacturers which brings complexity around warranties for inverters and batteries. Imagine if there’s only one manufacturer that’s responsible for the complexity. It would save a massive headache!
The good news is that this industry in-fighting may be a thing of the past. What we saw at NABCEP is that MLPEs, battery, and inverter manufacturers are all branching out and bringing new products to market. The idea of dealing with multiple manufacturers (and their associated finger-pointing) will be a thing of the past. You won’t have solar customers with a Tigo MLPE, and a Sol-Ark inverter, and a Fortress battery. Instead, we can imagine a soon to be future where installers and homeowners choose an energy ecosystem with a specific manufacturer. Similar to buying your phone and headphones all from Apple!
Ultimately, this change should be a win for installers. Consolidation will mean simplified warranties and a better customer experience. Homeowners will no longer be caught in the middle of different parties pointing fingers. While it’s much too early to predict which manufacturer will come out on top, the idea of additional product lines is a positive step towards streamlining the solar industry and making it even more user-friendly for everyone involved!
3. We're going through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) renaissance.
You wouldn't believe the buzz around PPAs and third-party ownership at NABCEP this year! In the past, we found that installers at NABCEP were mostly focused on cash and credit union financing options. PPAs were hardly even mentioned. This year, that’s changed in a big way. PPAs were the hot topic, making up between 10-30% of the financing conversations we had with installers.
It’s not hard to understand why. Both due to the impact of high interest rates, as well as the fact that PPAs are incentivized under the Inflation Reduction Act, we're witnessing a noticeable, industry-wide shift towards back towards third-party ownership options. More PPA vendors are emerging, and solar installers are actively discussing them with growing enthusiasm.
While we don’t think PPAs are going to be right for every sale, or even every installer, you should ensure that your sales team feels comfortable discussing PPAs with prospects. It’s a tough market out there, which is why it’s more important than ever to stay updated and adapt. By training your team on the basics of PPAs — when they make sense for a homeowner, when they don’t, and how to move forward with them — you give them the tools they need to deliver a winning customer experience.
4. We're still waiting on bidirectional EV charging.
While there were a lot of exciting advancements and conversations at NABCEP, we noticed one big thing missing. Where were the major announcements around bidirectional EV charging?
Yes, Enphase highlighted their readiness in this regard with a suitable protocol during their presentation, but approval from car manufacturers is still pending. To us, that’s a big red flag and something we all need to work on collectively in the industry.
After all, this gap on the side of car manufacturers could indicate that the auto industry wants to develop this capability in-house rather than work with a partner like Enphase. If possible, we think the advent of bidirectional EV charging should come from within the solar industry. Whether it’s Enphase or a different solar company, we want the industry to have a seat at the table. It’s the best chance we have at developing a system that works for car manufacturers, installers, and consumers alike.
That’s why, if Enphase has the capabilities ready, we need to do our best as an industry to educate consumers and let them know that Enphase wants to roll this out. That means keeping our eyes on bidirectional EV charging and continuing to bring it up at industry events like NABCEP.
5. We need continuing education in solar software.
The industry has grown a lot since NABCEP was first founded in 2002 — and that means there are now some real solar veterans. In fact, when we asked an experienced solar professional from a larger installer in Florida if he had learned anything new at the conference, he laughed and said, “It’s pretty tough to teach me something I don’t know about solar.”
That’s why he said he was excited to attend Bodhi’s technical training on Building a Software Stack to Support Growth. It was the one event he said that contained net-new information to him, featuring tips like how to set up automated communications and deal creation.
Not only were we glad to get the feedback, but we also think it highlights an important trend in the industry. As the solar industry continues to evolve, continuing education around software is vital if solar installers are to stay up-to-date with the latest technology that can help them automate and scale more of their business. Especially in challenging market conditions like the ones we’re facing, can help you run your business efficiently and effectively — but only if you know what to look for and how to use it. That’s why we need even more continuing education on these tools.
What comes next after NABCEP?
It’s still early in the year, with many other solar conferences to come. We’re excited to see how the solar landscape continues to unfold over the course of 2023. We’re excited to continue to amplify the exciting news and tackle the challenges together as an industry head-on.
We want to express our heartfelt thanks to everyone who visited the Bodhi booth at the conference. We had a fantastic time engaging with solar installers and discussing the evolving needs of homeowners and the customer experience. For those who couldn't make it to St. Charles, but are interested in learning more about the solar customer experience, please feel free to reach out. We’d love to chat.