Going Solar?

Request for Proposals Guide & Template for Nonprofits

The following outlines key steps that nonprofits should be prepared for when considering the option of converting their facility to a solar photovoltaic (PV) system.

While this information is not a substitute for professional consultation, assessment and design, it can get you started by helping you familiarize yourself with the process.

Download a complete how-to guide here

This guide draws from tools and lessons learned from a project funded by All Points North Foundation. We encourage you to use this guide to help facilitate what can be an enriching and rewarding transformation for your facility.

Phase 1: Exploration of a Commercial-scale Project

In this first phase, assess whether a solar project is a good fit for your organization. Note that if you are a tenant – not the owner – of your building, you will need to work closely with the landlord/owner as you consider improvements to the structure.

In this exploratory phase, you will need to:

Identify an in-house project manager from the beginning. This central point person keeps the project on schedule and within budget, fielding questions from your team, and coordinating with contractors and other professionals.

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Your solar installation may be able to help you reduce most if not all of the various components of your organization’s electricity bill. A basic way to determine your current energy usage – the baseline from which you will measure your savings after your solar installation is complete – is to collect electricity bills for the most recent 12 months. Most nonprofits and small businesses most likely will have a simple rate structure. However, depending on your utility and the type of rate structure you are on, you may need expertise from the outside to help you.

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In keeping with the idea of efficiency first – that using less energy is always the cheapest and easiest option to move toward a cleaner energy future – look for opportunities to improve energy efficiency in every aspect of your building and day-to-day operations. Many local utilities have programs that will help facility owners identify efficiency opportunities. Your organization also may choose to get a professional energy audit if your building is large and complex. Once you have identified efficiency opportunities, conduct an estimate of how those improvements could potentially lower your overall electricity use and what that translates into as cost savings.

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The following is a short checklist adapted from a guide from the U.S. Department of Energy. Find more here to help you with this step in our full user’s guide.

  • Assess the site for solar accessIt’s important that the site you are considering has good access to sunlight since even a small amount of shading can affect the output of the whole solar system negatively.
  • Evaluate the solar resourceHow much sunlight does your facility typically receive a day?
  • Investigate interconnection optionsThere are two parts of interconnection: 1) making sure that the building’s electrical system is up to code and ready for a solar system; and 2) getting permission from the utility to turn the system on.
  • Research financing options (if applicable)Solar resources that include information about financing options may be found by using the U.S. Department of Energy’s Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE).
  • Ensure roof is structurally capable of supporting solar installation if it’s a roof mount

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Phase 2: Preparation/Action Plan for Installing a Solar PV System

Following the decision to move forward with the installation of a solar PV system, the focus shifts to the steps needed to ensure a timely and on-budget installation.

In this second phase, the action plan your in-house project manager creates to complete the project should include the following steps:

Clearly define your project’s scope of work with specific and unique details about your requirements. The scope of work describes the details of the solar PV system and what the contractor will be expected to provide in their role in the project.

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If your organization requires or prefers a competitive bid process, you will need to issue a request for proposals (RFP). The RFP can be fairly broad, allowing solar professionals to offer their recommended system design and specifications, or fairly specific, to compare bids on pre-determined project specifications. We have provided common elements of an RFP and an RFP template in our full user’s guide. If managing an RFP process seems daunting, you can choose to work with a trusted, well-credentialed solar installer that will provide all of these tasks and scope of work.

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Your project timeline should account for the key steps such as finalization of the scope of work and RFP, distribution of/advertising your RFP, timing for pre-proposal site visits for bidders, and review and selection of your contractor. Your contractor’s work schedule should account for key steps, ideally in week-long blocks, from the time the contractor takes the initial deposit to order materials to when the materials will be delivered, then the block of time for installations, followed by final follow-up and targeted timing for permission to turn the system on. You can find a sample timeline and work schedule here.

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To find qualified solar installers, go to the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). You may want to email the RFP to a list of qualified contractors or call them directly to let them know an RFP packet is available digitally (e.g., on your website) or in hard copy at your organization’s office. You also may want to consider advertising your RFP by posting it on social media pages, via a local Builder’s Exchange Plan Room and/or placing a brief ad in the local papers. Include the deadline and contact information for your RFP.

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Phase 3: Contractor Selection, Solar Installation

The following outlines steps to consider and plan for once your RFP is issued and contractors have responded.

In this third and final phase, plan to:

While not mandatory, it’s highly recommended that all bidders visit the site and meet your key project staff. This pre-bid site meeting typically includes a “meet-and greet” with your team, a tour of the areas where the main solar components will be installed, discussion of your RFP’s specifications including emphasis of key parameters and instructions on submitting proposals, as well as time for questions and answers – bidders can ask questions for clarification and you can ask them questions to determine if they might be a good fit for your project. Find examples of questions you might want to ask here in our user’s guide.

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Generally there are two main components to assess when reviewing bidders’ proposals: responsiveness and responsibility. How well did the bidder address the scope of work you detailed in your RFP? How qualified is the bidder to perform the scope of work? While not essential, you may want to use a scoring matrix to determine the winning proposal.

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Once a contractor is selected, that company will provide a sales and installation agreement for your review. It is critical that your organization’s legal team reviews and approves any contracts and, should the need arise, participates in any negotiations.

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Once the installation is complete, your solar installer should take care of any required paperwork associated with connecting the system to the grid and getting authorization from the local utility to turn it on. Once the system is turned on, the installer should lead a tour of the operating system so that your staff can begin to become familiar with all the operating components. If a building inspector is scheduled to inspect, be sure to accompany them to become aware of any deficiencies that need to be resolved.

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Though fairly simple for PV systems, maintenance is essential to long-term management of your solar system. Modules may need to be cleaned, but more importantly, meters and inverters need to be monitored to ensure that the system is operating as expected. Your project budget should include funds for monitoring, ongoing maintenance costs and parts replacement. Your system installer often provides services for maintaining solar systems and you can contact them for an estimate for what that ongoing cost might be.

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Other than get the go-ahead to connect to the grid and turn your system on, the most exciting part about a solar project may be getting to talk about it. Reaching out to local news organizations (newspapers, television, radio and online media) is a great starting point to publicize your installation. For example, host a ribbon-cutting ceremony a feature your leadership, local government leadership, your contractor and, if appropriate, your funder.

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For a hands-on look at how this process can work for nonprofit organizations, check out Going Solar – Dell’Arte’s Story.