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Solar factories: do solar panels make sense for manufacturing?

Since the industrial revolution, factories have been among the world’s biggest consumers of energy due to their mass scale and high volume of processes centralized in one location. As a result of the major energy costs associated with manufacturing, many CEOs (such as Tesla’s Elon Musk) have identified solar power as the perfect way to reduce operating costs. In this article, we’ll explain why solar panels are a pragmatic investment for factories.

Why solar panels are ideal for commercial operations

Much of the excitement around solar energy in the 21st century has been due to its rapid decline in price across the globe. At the end of 2016, solar power became the cheapest energy source in the world, surpassing wind and its fossil fuel counterparts like natural gas. However, much of modern skepticism about solar still lies in the question of what to do for power supply at night or during bad weather when the sun is not shining. While net metering and new storage solutions help to remedy that problem, many homeowners still rely on grid-sourced electricity for part of the day.

When it comes to commercial applications like corporate offices and manufacturing plants, the beauty of solar is that most energy use occurs during the day. Large commercial plants can benefit from solar power without needing to buy a storage solution to cover nighttime energy usage. When a factory’s energy use is at its peak, a solar system will equivalently be at peak production whereas at night, the facility requires little energy while the solar system is dormant.

Furthermore, larger commercial solar systems are an even better deal in terms of long-term savings because of the economies of scale dynamic with solar power. EnergySage Solar Marketplace pricing data, as well as other third party data providers, are in consensus that the cost per watt a consumer will pay for a solar system will decrease as the system size increases. Commercial and utility-scale solar installations are largely responsible for giving solar the title of cheapest energy resource in the world. For bigger manufacturing facilities, a commercial solar installation will be bid at a very affordable rate, which guarantees a fast break-even point, in potentially just a few years.

Why factory roofs sweeten the deal

Though it’s clear that solar makes sense for factories contextually, they are also a great use case due to the style of roof most commonly associated with large commercial buildings. Factories are known for having large flat roofs with plenty of ample roof space, offering an ideal installation site for solar panels.

Roof layout in small buildings can cause issues with solar system installations – drastically angled roofs, skylights and dormers limit the area where solar panels can be installed. Additionally, solar panels should ideally be installed facing south to maximize sunlight exposure, which isn’t always an option with smaller angled roofs. The large, flat surface area of a factory building also results in fewer issues caused by shading from overhead trees and can make for an easier and faster system installation.

Tesla’s gigafactory, located in Reno Nevada, is it’s largest manufacturing facility and will run entirely on solar power once the building is complete. The gigafactory will help to build motors for Tesla’s electric vehicles as well as its Tesla Powerwall and Powerpack products.

One modern example of solar being used to power a large factory is Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 in Nevada. The electric motors behemoth began construction on its largest manufacturing plant in 2014. The Gigafactory 1 is now near 20% completion according to recent updates. The plant will run entirely on solar and will harness the ideal sunny location of the Silver State while also maximizing the many benefits mentioned already in this article.

Another example not far from Tesla’s new facility is Apple’s data center that will also run entirely on solar upon completion. Apple partnered with NV Energy, Nevada’s leading utility, to construct a 200 megawatt solar farm to power its largest data center in the world. The solar farm, located near the tech giant’s massive data center, will benefit from the same time-of-energy-use principle associated with factories and solar panel production.

How to begin the solar shopping process for a factory or commercial facility

Though the benefits of a solar installation may be clear, the next step for a factory representative may not be. He or she may have a few key questions such as “what will the installation cost upfront, what’s the right way to finance something of that scale and when would it achieve payback?” To get a better understanding for some of these prospective questions as well as to get a better grip on the solar shopping process, check out these helpful tips:

Three Tips for Solar Shoppers

1. Homeowners who get multiple quotes save 10% or more

As with any big ticket purchase, shopping for a solar panel installation takes a lot of research and consideration, including a thorough review of the companies in your area. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recommended that consumers compare as many solar options as possible to avoid paying inflated prices offered by the large installers in the solar industry.

To find the smaller contractors that typically offer lower prices, you’ll need to use an installer network like EnergySage. You can receive free quotes from vetted installers local to you when you register your property on our Solar Marketplace – homeowners who get 3 or more quotes can expect to save $5,000 to $10,000 on their solar panel installation.

2. The biggest installers typically don’t offer the best price

The bigger isn’t always better mantra is one of the main reasons we strongly encourage homeowners to consider all of their solar options, not just the brands large enough to pay for the most advertising. A recent report by the U.S. government found that large installers are $2,000 to $5,000 more expensive than small solar companies. If you have offers from some of the big installers in solar, make sure you compare those bids with quotes from local installers to ensure you don’t overpay for solar.

3. Comparing all your equipment options is just as important

National-scale installers don’t just offer higher prices – they also tend to have fewer solar equipment options, which can have a significant impact on your system’s electricity production. By collecting a diverse array of solar bids, you can compare costs and savings based on the different equipment packages available to you.

There are multiple variables to consider when seeking out the best solar panels on the market. While certain panels will have higher efficiency ratings than others, investing in top-of-the-line solar equipment doesn’t always result in higher savings. The only way to find the “sweet spot” for your property is to evaluate quotes with varying equipment and financing offers.

For any homeowner in the early stage of shopping for solar that would just like a ballpark estimate for an installation, try our Solar Calculator that offers upfront cost and long-term savings estimates based on your location and roof type. For those looking to get quotes from local contractors today, check out our quote comparison platform.


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