Erthos: Utility-Scale Solar from the Ground Up

As climate threats loom across the globe, it is imperative to rapidly transition from fossil-fueled energy production to renewable, emissions-free sources. Solar energy holds particular promise: Its costs have declined faster than most experts projected, and it is now the "cheapest source of electricity in history." In the United States, utility-scale solar has been generating clean and reliable energy for decades. And with emerging companies offering new and innovative solar technologies every day, this renewable source provides one of the best routes toward a clean energy future.

One such innovator is Erthos, a solar deployment startup aiming to simplify solar "from the ground up." Erthos brings a diverse team of professionals specializing in engineering, procurement, construction, project development, and product introduction and marketing. Leyline Renewable Capital interviewed Daniel Flanigan, the company's chief marketing and product officer, to learn more about Erthos' technology and business model.

Traditional solar fields require trackers and racking that structurally support the array. According to Flanigan, these materials consume unnecessary space, incur extra costs, and are land and resource intensive. For example, the price of steel used for mounting infrastructure is rising at an unprecedented rate; in addition, steel production's carbon intensity is antithetical to climate change progress. Erthos CEO Jim Tyler anticipated that these trends would make solar less competitive and came up with a solution: redefining utility-scale solar design with Earth Mount Solar PV.

Earth Mount panels lay flat on the ground, eliminating the need for steel piles, racking, and trackers and minimizing ground disturbance. These modules function in the same way as any other solar PV, can be deployed in the same market regions as current arrays, and work across variable terrains with up to 15 percent slope. Where traditional, racked panels involve grading, trenching, and other soil disturbance, ground-mounted panels require little-to-no civil work. Flanigan also notes that Erthos panels require much less frequent maintenance than your average solar facility. The low profile provides stability and eliminates the wind-loading and flexion microcracking experienced by tracker-mounted PVs. An autonomous robot cleans the array daily, and when service is necessary, weight-distributing platforms allow access.

The overall result? A utility-scale power plant that is good for the climate, built for half the cost, in half the time, and on a third of the land required for a typical solar array. Eliminating the steel, piles, and bulky trackers not only minimizes Erthos' land and carbon footprint, but also provides rapid energy payback - three-and-a-half years versus seven for a typical solar PV system. According to Flanigan, the company's 2019 Arizona pilot project and a new, commercially deployed system in California are performing even better than predicted. Their levelized costs of energy also speak for themselves, coming in 20 percent lower than what's seen in the typical PV market. Four new Erthos systems are set for completion later this year, and it doesn't stop there; the company has more than a gigawatt of engagements with developers in the pipeline.

The company has proprietary innovations not only in its product, but also in its comprehensive business model that includes solar architect services, long-term energy services, and technology licensing. Erthos engages with developers as a solar architect, running preliminary analyses, making energy predictions, and estimating cost and time for construction. If a customer wants to move forward, Erthos can then act as the project engineer. Erthos designs the system; manages on-site quality control; deals with construction documents, permitting, RFPs, and other procurement services; and guides the developer to select good materials. Panels must come from one of Erthos's ErthCompatible licensed manufacturers, which produce their specialized frame design. There are currently five prominent manufacturers to choose from as part of a rapidly growing list. Once a solar array is complete, Erthos provides operations and maintenance support throughout the project's lifetime.

As with any new technology, Erthos of course faces challenges in the market - in proving sufficient energy production and reliability. So far that has not been a problem, and the company just successfully completed its first PV module bankability report.

Says Flanigan: "The market needs Erthos technology. Starting out, we knew this idea was important, but we've been surprised at just how much fervor with which the market is responding. We didn't anticipate how rapidly steel prices were going to increase, and that's really accelerating a need for this technology. Solar projects relying on trackers and racking are going underwater, but with Earth Mount PV, we can come in and help them pencil and succeed. Erthos is really taking off, and we're excited to really make a positive impact on our economy and our planet."

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