Ojjo aims to cut solar project costs with better foundation for panels

The steel-truss startup just raised another $40 million and landed the biggest solar-storage project in the U.S. as a client.

a triangular metal truss holding up solar panels
The Ojjo triangular truss in use at the Eagle Shadow Mountain Solar Farm on the Moapa River Indian Reservation in Nevada (Ojjo)
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The maturing solar industry is sniffing out every last possible cost reduction for its increasingly massive power plants. Like a truffle pig sensing treasure, startup Ojjo looked below ground.

Solar panels at large-scale projects usually have to sit on something, and the standard approach is to use pile drivers to hammer steel H-beams into the ground. But straight beams need to be strong enough to resist wind, and that requires overbuilding them relative to the task of holding up solar panels. 

Then there’s the issue of widely varying soil types. Stony or hard-packed soils can resist pile drivers, forcing technicians to predrill holes to drive the beams into. 

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These challenges drive up solar developers’ costs for labor and material at a time when commodities such as steel are soaring in price. And as solar panel costs have dropped, these balance-of-plant” costs become a more visible piece of an overall project budget.

This is where Ojjo comes in with a proposition it says can save money for developers and the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firms that build their projects. 

​All-in with our system right now, it’s substantially less steel volume and also less labor,” Ojjo President Helena Kimball told Canary Media.

The four-year-old company replaces conventional foundations with a less material-intensive system. A custom-built machine drills hollow screws into the ground at precise angles. Then installers slide steel pipes in to make a triangular truss. Once a row of these is erected, they can connect with and support solar trackers from familiar brands like Array Technologies and NEXTracker.

The physical strength of these triangular trusses is mirrored in the strength of Ojjo’s market entry. The company closed a $40 million Series C funding round this month after raising $27 million over two previous rounds. Its technology currently holds up 550 megawatts of solar generation equipment in Nevada, Oregon and Texas. And it earned a major stamp of approval by winning the contract to supply the entire 967 megawatts (DC) for the Gemini Solar project, the largest solar-plus-storage development underway in North America. 

As Ojjo CEO Mike Miskovsky puts it, the company is injecting technological innovation into a component of solar construction that has been otherwise overlooked by startups.

It’s been an unexamined assumption for decades that the only way to create foundations to support these very large solar plants is by pounding a dumb commodity piece of steel into the ground, and then all the technology gets installed” on top, he said.

Prior solar success speeds path to market

It helped that the Ojjo team had strong foundations in solar foundations.

Ojjo founder and CTO Jack West previously founded Zep Solar, a rooftop racking startup that did well enough to get acquired by market leader SolarCity in its heyday. That exit proved two things: The team could build and sell a company, in that case for $158 million. And they knew how to design hardware to help solar installers do their job more profitably and efficiently. 

Current Ojjo CEO Miskovsky held the same role at Zep when it went through the acquisition. Many of Ojjo’s engineers worked with him there. President Helena Kimball, who recently handed the CEO reins to Miskovsky, tackled the inner workings of massive solar development as VP of marketing at 8minute Solar.

The leadership team’s experience helped open the taps for venture capital funding, initially from the ominously named Cthulhu Ventures. The latest raise was led by the energy transition practice at growth equity investor NGP, joined by Ajax Strategies.

But reputation alone was not enough. To unlock the Series C, Miskovsky and Kimball had to show that their product served a real market need and delivered tangible value to customers. That meant convincing the companies building huge solar projects to deviate from the norm and try a new product.

Basic physics helped, Kimball pointed out. The core engineering principle is simply that triangles are stronger than straight lines. There’s a lot of complexity behind that, especially to design and program the automatic drilling machine, but Ojjo wasn’t trying to disrupt the laws of physics, the way some cleantech startups do.

Before any deals closed, though, Ojjo had to pass real-world trials known as pull tests. The company would set up its trusses in the field of a prospective solar project, then yank on them with an excavator in various directions to see how much force the trusses could withstand. Successful completion of this testing, in the same soil conditions as the future solar plant, gave customers like the Gemini project confidence to move forward.

The company’s engagement with Gemini has impressed the customer so far. We want this technology incorporated broadly across our portfolio,” said Adam Larner, COO of Primergy Energy, which owns the project.

Utility-scale solar needs this now

Ojjo got to market just as big solar hit an inflection point. Solar modules have gotten gradually cheaper, such that they represent a declining portion of overall project costs. Meanwhile, projects are getting bigger. If companies like Ojjo can shave even a sliver of cost from components as rudimentary as the foundations, that can save project owners millions of dollars in expenditures.

In some cases, it’s many, many millions of dollars, depending on the project size,” Kimball said. But if you can save an EPC even $1 million, they’re going to look at you very seriously.”

Ojjo also wants to assist the industry’s geographic diversification across the U.S. For years, California installed vastly more utility-scale solar than other states. Now development is spreading across the continent, forcing developers to contend with intransigent geologies. 

Everything was California ag land, where you just slam an H pile in and you’re done,” Kimball said. Now you’re going up into the Midwest, where there’s frost heave. You’re going through the desert, where there’s this really hard caliche. You’re going up into the East Coast and there’s frost, there are cobbles, there’s granite.” 

Financiers now worry more about subsurface risk”: It’s hard to know how much money it’ll cost to affix your panels to the ground. Ojjo believes it can smooth the way for solar installations on a variety of terrains. 

Ojjo advertises project-level savings of up to $0.02 per watt (DC) from its product, thanks to reduced needs for labor and steel compared to conventional trusses. The median price per watt (DC) of a sampling of utility-owned, large-scale solar projects in 2021 was $0.97, according to a recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory market update. Savings of roughly 2 percent may seem marginal, but when projects top $1 billion, as Gemini does, a percentage point or two translates to millions of dollars.

The Inflation Reduction Act is poised to unleash a flood of capital into this space, driven by long-term tax credits that can chop up to half off the capital expenses of solar projects that meet labor standards, location criteria and domestic-content requirements. Those projects will get to pick from a dizzying array of solar panels and a competitive market for trackers, but Ojjo doesn’t have a ton of competition for high-tech approaches to what goes on below the ground.

Julian Spector is senior reporter at Canary Media.