Interview with Hartman Hoel, Project Development Manager at Sunpeak
Tell us more about how Sunpeak began.
In 2014, co-founders Chad Sorenson and Karl Huber saw a unique opportunity to start a commercial solar company in the Midwest focused on quality, customer education, and project efficiency. By blending Chad’s engineering and business expertise with the extensive finance and renewable energy development experience Karl had gained in more mature solar markets overseas (Germany and Japan), they created and honed SunPeak’s process-based approach to solar engineering, procurement, construction, and maintenance.
Early momentum for the company came by leveraging international procurement channels, robust quality assurance practices, and by helping customers apply for grants and incentives that made projects financially attractive. The company has steadily grown over the last nine years and has become a trusted solar partner for many leading brands including American Family Insurance, Ashley Furniture Industries, SC Johnson, and Tyson Foods, among many others.
What do your customers appreciate most about your work?
Our customers appreciate that we go out of our way to educate them on all aspects of a solar project. Taking the time to help customers understand the many different options they can consider, including materials, financing, technical details, and other nuances of the project is critical for a customer to be fully comfortable with their purchase. We believe customer education is integral to customer satisfaction, and it is well worth the investment of our time throughout the project process.
Tell us about the different types of projects your company handles.
Our in-house EPC (engineering, procurement, and construction) team installs ground, rooftop, and carport solar projects for commercial and industrial customers. Our largest solar markets are Wisconsin and Illinois, but we complete systems for customers across the U.S. We enjoy working with all types of businesses that want to use solar to meet their operational and sustainability goals. A typical customer installation is a behind-the-meter system between 100 kWdc and 2 MWdc, though some of our projects are much larger.
Tell us about making an impact in your community(ies). Is there an example project SunPeak has done that showcases the impact it had on a community?
We really enjoy opportunities to share our expertise and industry knowledge with students and local learners of all ages and backgrounds. One example is our long-established relationship with the Urban League of Madison (ULM). For many years SunPeak offered a steady career pathway for participants of ULM’s Foundations for the Trades course. SunPeak guest lectured, hired, and mentored many “second chance” workers; men and women who had significant barriers to obtaining gainful employment due to prior conviction or other life circumstances. This summer, we had the great honor of designing and installing a rooftop solar system for the new Black Business Hub for ULM. The system will be commissioned soon, and we will be taking students participating in ULM’s STEM Camp (grades 6-9) on a tour of the new solar system, talking about solar from both a project and career perspective.
To date, SunPeak has also completed two rooftop solar projects for UW-Madison at Gordon Commons and the Arboretum. Through these projects, we’ve developed an ongoing partnership with the UW Office of Sustainability. For each solar project, we have welcomed student participation from Helios (sustainability student group) members during the design process. We also regularly support on-campus sustainability events such as this year’s EmPOWERING Youth for a Brighter Future gathering, which brought together more than a hundred high school and college students to learn about sustainability topics from local industry leaders.
Lastly, we also provide multiple paid internships per year, providing students who have an interest in sustainability careers with the opportunity to explore and work in various facets of our business. Each intern completes a rotation within each of our core business areas (project development, field work, project management, sales, and marketing). We’ve hired at least three interns into full-time positions in the last two years, and many others have gone on to work in legislative offices or other renewable energy fields.
Tell us about the most interesting or unique system you have installed.
We installed a ~8 MWdc array for a commercial client in Leesport, Pennsylvania. This is already an impressive size for a commercial system, but what’s more interesting is that it was a rooftop array. The building itself was huge – the west facing edge of the roof was around one third of a mile long! At the time, the system was the largest rooftop array in the state of Pennsylvania and the fourth largest rooftop array in the nation.
The unique size of the system resulted in a complex utility interconnection process. In addition to utility upgrades, a new control system was implemented, allowing the utility to remotely communicate with and disconnect the system from the grid for safety purposes during maintenance activities.
What are your team’s focuses from one install to the next.
As an organization, we focus on constant process improvement. At the end of every project, we meet as a team to debrief, discuss, and document any feedback or lessons learned from each project phase. When applicable, we implement process improvements. By establishing a feedback loop and working towards continuous improvement, we support our ISO 9001 certification, which gives our customers confidence that we will deliver an excellent product every time.
What has been your experience with supply chain issues over the past year or few years?
Most of our supply chain issues have been related to non-solar electrical equipment, including CT cabinets, switches, and electrical panels. Some of these items can have lead times of multiple months. We alleviate these issues through proactive engineering and detailed knowledge gathering – combined, we can often procure electrical equipment early in the project process, which greatly mitigates impact to a project’s overall timeline.
Tell us about your company’s operations. How many installers, electricians, crews. How does SunPeak organize an install?
SunPeak’s project staff is split into two main departments – Development and Execution. Our Project Developers are responsible for the sale of a system to a customer, which includes customer education, proposal development, financing, incentive research, utility communications, site assessments, and preliminary engineering. Once a contract is signed, the account is led by the Execution department, which handles detailed engineering, procurement, construction, commissioning, and ongoing maintenance.
SunPeak has around 15 full-time office staff and up to 25 field staff. We typically have up to three field crews in operation, but we can accommodate more as needed. SunPeak is signatory to both the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Being a union shop, we work closely with both unions to fulfill out staffing needs and use local talent whenever we can.
How many systems has SunPeak installed since it formed?
To date, SunPeak has completed more than 120 customer projects nationwide.