SCHENECTADY — Less than three years after leaving the mothership, General Electric spinoff DSD Renewables has nearly tripled its workforce as it adds solar electricity to the power grid and to its customers’ facilities.
DSD’s headquarters at Mohawk Harbor hosts a small percentage of its nearly 170 employees — many others work remotely or at satellite offices.
DSD uses sunlight to generate electricity on clients’ sites, then charges those clients less for that electricity than their local utility would. These solutions often include a storage component, a bank of batteries to keep the power flowing when the sun isn’t shining brightly or at all.
A project DSD recently completed in Rotterdam brings all these things together and boosts local solar generation enough that the Schenectady County Solar Energy Consortium has achieved its goal: The electrical needs of the town, city and county governments are met entirely with local solar power.
DSD’s growth is both in size and number of contracts, CEO Erik Schiemann said.
“We’re seeing an increase in value, and because [of that] we’re being able to pursue more volume,” he said.
DSD was created in 2012 as GE Solar, an internal incubator business that was a developer rather than a manufacturer — it used other companies’ technology to create the solution best suited to its clients, which typically are larger industrial or commercial operations.
In July 2019, BlackRock Real Assets bought 80% of GE Solar and it became “Distributed Solar Development, A GE Renewable Energy Venture.” The new company moved up Erie Boulevard from the GE campus to Mohawk Harbor with a workforce of about 60. BlackRock subsequently acquired the remaining 20% and renamed it DSD Renewables.
DSD remains technology-agnostic, Schiemann said, still not manufacturing equipment and not committed to any one company or its technology.
“The customers come to us and we go to them identifying a problem,” he said. And that problem is that the energy they are using is nonrenewable and expensive.
DSD builds, funds and owns a solar power system on site for the client and makes back its investment by selling the electricity to the customer and/or the local utility.
A battery storage unit, if it’s included in the mix, adds the ability to sell electricity to the grid when it is most expensive or save it for when it is most needed on-site.
DSD recently completed the last of the seven solar arrays commissioned through the Schenectady County Solar Energy Consortium. This last facility, along the Thruway at Rynex Corners Road in Rotterdam, is one of the most powerful of the seven, rated at 4.5 megawatts.
The seven installations total about 25 megawatts of capacity, enough to power all operations by the county, city and town governments, said County Attorney Chris Gardner, who has been one of the main proponents of solar as the consortium took shape over the past five years.
There was no out-of-pocket expense for the municipalities, aside from the land they provided, some of which had limited potential use — former landfills in Rotterdam, Glenville and Schenectady are among the host sites.
Gardner said electricity from the solar sites is about 25% cheaper than from the grid. The resulting savings fluctuates around $800,000 a year.
The arrangement saves money and helps the environment, Gardner said, adding that Schenectady County might be the only county that can say its governments are fully solar-powered.
The solar panels at the Rynex Corners Road site went online in April 2021. The 10-megawatt storage unit went online in December, and incorporates some newer technology to boost efficiency.
Matt Kaufmann, DSD’s vice president of energy storage and EV charging infrastructure, said the process of moving newly generated electricity from panels to a battery and to the power grid at the same time has been historically complicated by a bottleneck of efficiency-robbing inverters that change the electricity back and forth from direct current to alternating current.
At Rotterdam, DSD is using a direct DC-to-DC coupling between solar panel and battery.
“It’s a more efficient way to control when solar hits the grid,” Kaufmann said. “The real challenge was aligning the inverters to accept power flows simultaneously. The main difference is, we can build a larger [solar power array] than we could.”
An added benefit of energy storage is reducing stress on the power grid, Shiemann said, serving as a buffer that smooths out the generation profile of solar power that shifts continually with time of day and degree of cloud cover.
Electricity storage is going to be needed on a massive scale if New York is to meet its stated goal of increasing power generation by 500% over the next three decades, almost entirely with the inconsistent output of wind turbines and solar panels.
Schiemann said not all of DSD’s projects incorporate energy storage because not all have to, but he does feel the cost of storage is a limiting factor at this point. Solar technology has matured into a viable and economical mass-scale power source, he said, and he thinks storage will catch up.
Solar was at the same inflection point a decade ago as storage is now, he added, but has made huge advances since.
Asked about the possibility that these technological advances will render obsolete the equipment DSD is using today, Schiemann said efficiency is likely to improve but fundamental compatibility will endure. Regardless, he added, it’s not a concern for customers: DSD owns and operates the equipment and would pay for any upgrades needed to get customers their electricity at the specified discount.
“You’re buying predictability,” he said.
The work-from-home model common during the pandemic was neither new nor disruptive for DSD. It always has had a large remote component of its workforce as it pursued contracts all over the country.
“That required me early on to have a flexible work policy,” Schiemann said. “Even at GE we had a pretty liberal remote work policy.”
There’s no command center with a floor-to-ceiling display of solar assets DSD has installed. The operations and management team can see and troubleshoot just about everything on their smartphones.
The Schenectady and New York City offices do have room for the periodic brainstorming sessions that bring together a workforce that includes people with sales, finance, engineering, land development, legal and construction management expertise.
Sometimes what’s needed are soft skills more than technical skills, as when introducing a proposal to a community.
Schiemann said DSD doesn’t run into the same type of neighbor pushback that solar developers sometimes see when they propose an array on farmland.
Rooftops and commercial sites are the most frequent venue for a DSD project.
“We’re generally not the one that’s going to be doing an installation in a field that’s going to be massively noticeable,” Schiemann said. “Does it really bother you to drive past an industrial site and see a solar array?”
When opposition or just curiosity does arise, DSD presents computer-generated, three-dimensional images of what the array will look like, and these can be manipulated to view from any angle.
“We’ve gotten really good at providing renderings where you don’t even need to imagine what it will look like,” Schiemann said.