Mark Culpepper, general manager of DroneBase’s solar division, will appear on Episode 17 of the Factor This! podcast to discuss the company’s new quality rating database and its impact on the industry. The episode will be available on all podcast platforms on Monday, Sept. 19. Subscribe today!
This episode of Factor This! is sponsored by Nextracker, the industry’s most advanced smart solar tracking system. Scroll down to see how Nextracker ramped up 10 GW of domestic manufacturing capacity to better serve project developers.
Mark Culpepper knows that what his company DroneBase does next is not going to please everyone in the solar industry.
The company conducts manned and unmanned aerial assessments of utility-scale solar PV projects on behalf of asset owners. Recognizing the value of the data they collect, DroneBase is pivoting away from being just a service provider.
The company is developing what it hopes will become a database of every major solar project in North America. Such a resource would give DroneBase the ability to rate developers, EPCs, and asset owners, as well as the manufacturers of modules, trackers, and inverters, based on performance.
That report card would be available to anyone who subscribes to DroneBase’s platform.
And it could lead to a shakeup in the industry.
“I challenge anybody to tell me who has the best module in the industry,” said Culpepper, the general manager of DroneBase’s solar division. “With this level of data, we’re going to be able to start to make those kind of correlations.”
Over the past year, DroneBase employees have driven up and down the western and eastern seaboards of North America in an effort to scan every solar project larger than 1 MW in capacity. DroneBase teams covered 60,000 nautical miles over that period, Culpepper said.
Culpepper said DroneBase recently completed its flyover of 850 sites totaling 16 GW of installed capacity in California. Put more simply, DroneBase believes it has scanned every major solar project in the Golden State.
As part of the overview, asset owners were given two options: 1) allow DroneBase to provide the owners with a thermal scan of their solar plant or 2) DroneBase will scan the solar plant anyway and keep the data for itself.
That approach didn’t sit well with every asset owner, but they didn’t have much of a choice; the Federal Aviation Administration controls the skies over their panels, not them.
Culpepper acknowledges that the take-it-or-leave-it approach might not sit well with some. But he argues that the solar industry has a “lack of transparency.” DroneBase is simply making use of the same overfly tactics used in the oil and gas industry for decades, he said.
Armed with what could amount to a comprehensive ranking system, investors, utilities, and regulators would have more visibility into the performance and value of solar projects than ever before.
“I think the people who are going to be most upset with us are the ones who have poor-performing assets,” Culpepper said. He added that they have poor-performing asset is, to a large degree, “from their own creation.”
“We think it’s potentially transformative for the industry.”
DroneBase’s database could lead to a reckoning for the solar industry. While highly rated project developers and suppliers could use the platform as a marketing tool, others could see an impact on their bottom line as a result.
The platform is envisioned to become solar’s version of the bond credit ratings provided by agencies like Standard & Poor and Moody’s. Each solar project will receive a rating from AAA to D based on estimated DC losses, elevated temperature risk, and module defect rate.
The database will likely take 3-5 years to fully build out. By that point, disgruntled asset owners won’t be able to claim a project was scanned on a cloudy day, or that a poor rating was due to human error, because the data will be too strong, Culpepper said.
“We’re not going to go broadcast who the dogs in the industry are,” Culpepper said. “But anybody who subscribes to our service will be able to make those associations themselves.”
About our sponsor:
Episode 17 of the Factor This! podcast is sponsored by Nextracker.
The Inflation Reduction Act is a game changer for American solar manufacturing.
But even before the landmark legislation passed, Nextracker was betting big on Made in America, ramping up 10 GW of domestic manufacturing capacity while others waited out the pandemic, supply chain constraints, and tariff risks.
Nextracker, the industry’s most advanced smart solar tracking systems.
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Author: John Engel