5-14-2013 New E-Commerce Platform Reduces Solar Soft Costs
An interview with Mr. Patrick McCabe, CTO, Greenlancer By Doug Elbinger
Just in the last year, the dramatic drop in solar panel prices has brought the ROI solar energy into acceptable levels, making solar energy a very affordable and attractive investment …which is great. Unfortunately, the soft costs—things like labor, sales, administration engineering and permitting—have gone up. Soft costs now account for about 60% of a typical solar project’s costs.
So how do we bring soft costs down to make the entire project more affordable? And is it possible to streamline the entire process of solar project development—reducing production time and price at once?
GreenLancer is a Detroit-based company that has answers to those questions—good ones—in the form of a new business model which creates an e-commerce platform for solar engineering services. GreenLancer has permits in all 50 states, and has worked in multiple countries overseas. I talked with Patrick McCabe, CTO of GreenLancer, to learn exactly how they’re revolutionizing the green engineering industry, and how their business model can help contractors work more efficiently.
LH: Hi Patrick. Can you tell me about GreenLancer? What’s going on here that’s so revolutionary?
PM: Sure! The business and production models have actually been around since the days of Henry Ford—but the way in which we’re applying the principles is pretty new.
We’re basically a platform connecting freelance green engineers—we call them GreenLancers—with contractors around the country. Here’s how it works, in a nutshell: A contractor or developer logs in to our site and orders from a set of predefined engineering services. It’s like they’re choosing from a set of boilerplates, or templates, which can be customized. Using our proprietary web site, the contractor knows exactly what they’re going to get, when they’re going to get it, and what they’re going to pay. No surprises.
Then our GreenLancers bid, and one of them picks up the project. What this GreenLancer does is predefined—it’s exactly what the contractor ordered—no more and no less. They know exactly what they’re doing, exactly how long they have to do it, and exactly what they’re going to get paid.
The great thing about this is that it’s all predefined. There are no surprises regarding turnaround time or pricing for either the contractor or the GreenLancer.
We accomplish all this in the Cloud, and that really allows us to keep costs low. It’s great.
LH: So from the front end—when a contractor logs in—they choose from a set of predefined services, such as feasibility study, concept design, financial analysis, and permit package. What’s the back end of your site like?
PM: Well, the back end of our site is like a virtual assembly line. 100 years ago, Henry Ford came up with a process that simplified manufacturing cars. A group of engineers in one room built the car from the ground up. The assembly line broke this up in to 84 predefined tasks. That meant the labor force could specialize in tasks. There didn’t have to be a single expert who knew how to build the car from the ground up. Everybody did what they were best at.
100 years later, we’re doing the same thing. Except our assembly lines aren’t on the ground. They’re in the Cloud. We call them “assembly swarms” instead of “assembly lines.” We have a lot of different specialists in our assembly swarms. Drafters, engineers, architects—all accredited professionals in various tech fields.
This gives us the freedom to take on a variety of national and international projects—both big and small—and turn out consistently high-quality, affordable work, without ever producing a single thing in our offices in Detroit.
LH: So GreenLancer is like a hub?
PM: A hub of specialists, yes.
LH: What kinds of services is GreenLancer most known for?
PM: We have a lot of services, but at the moment, there are four main things developers use our platform for:
- The first is feasibility studies. Contractors come to us analyze their project from all angles and tell them everything they need to know. We can do all this remotely, using satellite technology. It’s very efficient. It saves a lot of time and money, because the contractor doesn’t have to go out to the site and do the feasibility study personally. We can cover everything—from project specifications, to financial analysis, and even how much energy the proposed project would use or save the end client.
- The second thing we’re popular for is design—coming up with new materials and processes—so we can define all the necessary pieces going into a project, including their cost.
- Third, contractors often come to us for financial analysis. We take care of analyzing all the information for the investor. This includes ROI, the payback year, how much the project will save on monthly utilities—all things a CSO might want to know.
- Fourth, we handle permit packages. We’re permitted in all 50 states, and we can really streamline the permitting process. We’re like LegalZoom for engineering blueprints. So the contractor just fills out a small form, and we take care of the rest.
LH: What kind of feedback have you guys gotten so far?
PM: Oh, the response has been overwhelming. We get feedback from a lot of different kinds of contractors, because this system makes it so easy for them to expand their offerings to include solar and other kinds of green technology. For instance, with GreenLancer, an electric contractor can start offering solar installation. They don’t have to bring on a full solar engineering staff. They turn to our energy freelance specialists, and get reliable work every time. Same deal for roofers, architects—you get the idea. The system lowers the barrier of expertise for solar installation, and it’s really democratizing green energy.
LH: How does working in the Cloud impact GreenLancer’s turnaround time?
PM: Enormously! In a traditional brick-and-mortar firm, there’s maybe one or two guys working on 20 projects. But our platform is based on crowd sourcing—collecting people in a network and mobilizing them. Now there’s 8 or more engineers working on one project. All accredited professionals. So you can imagine, this increases our capacity so much that contractors are never waiting around to get results.
LH: What green technologies does GreenLancer offer other than solar?
PM: We’re rapidly expanding to include things like geothermal, wind, advanced lighting, energy audits, and more. Right now, we’re really excited about our new Solar Site Design app. This is an app for your cell phone or tablet that lets contractors take pictures of a site or put in specifications, and then our GreenLancers analyze its solar potential—including financial feasibility and energy savings. This is another instance where satellite technology is really powerful. We’ll also be selling actual products—we’ve already started creating and building our own materials. So contractors will be able to buy from us and have materials drop shipped. The more convenient we can make it for contractors and developers to get quality work, the happier everyone will be.