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How the solar industry can deal with supply chain interruptions during COVID-19

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By Rainey Jernigan, Operations and Supply Chain Manager, Quest Renewables. This article is also featured on Quest Renewables’ blog and shared with permission.

With the onslaught of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, we are all experiencing an unprecedented time. As the global economy wrestles with defining which industries and businesses are essential and non-essential, the United States has determined that construction, manufacturing and energy are essential businesses. Many companies and jobs within the solar industry fall into construction, manufacturing or energy, and in some cases all three categories. At Quest Renewables, we have outlined how we can limit interruptions to our supply chain during the current atmosphere. Our hope is that you will find this information helpful.

1. Communicate with suppliers more frequently than usual

Daily communication is key as the reach and severity of COVID-19 changes daily. With these daily changes, the timing of solar projects are changing as well, and logistics are becoming more challenging. At Quest, we have been interacting with our suppliers daily to check in and update them on any project changes or delays. Sharing new information in a timely manner allows both parties to have the most up-to-date information to make key decisions on projects.

2. Continue to work with your existing suppliers 

It is most likely not the time to start to work with new suppliers. This current environment is the time to leverage your strong relationships to get materials ordered and shipped to site with as few interruptions as possible. Trusting that your suppliers are acting on your company’s best interests comes with years of working together and the resulting strong relationships.

3. Be flexible and set customer expectations

Flexibility means not expecting all deliveries and orders to be “business as usual.” This is the time to understand that it is not easy for suppliers to promise or deliver on orders like it was before the COVID-19 outbreak. Many manufacturers and delivery companies are extremely limited in their current scope of work, so be patient and understand what limits they have. For example: for one of our upcoming projects, manufacturing time has taken longer than usual. Typically, the production time is 1 day, but now it is 2 to 3 days. Being understanding with the supplier as well as providing timely and clear explanations to the customer are key.

4. Keep things in perspective

We know it is usually critical to our business to deliver products on time, but during these uncertain times (not business as usual), our suppliers might deliver materials late due to unavailability of delivery drivers and limited amounts of workers in the manufacturing facilities. This is not a failure, but a byproduct of continuing to work right now.

People are sick and medical facilities need medical supplies; people are staying at home and need food. Solar projects are not the highest priority for delivery companies right now. Understand that the trucking companies are also dealing with uncertainty and overwhelm, and keeping that in perspective is important.

5. Lean on your suppliers, but let them lean on you too

Know that your suppliers are working hard for you, and being an understanding and cooperative customer they can rely on in times of uncertainty shows that you are a good customer. When you have a call, ask them how they are doing and how they are coping at home. Speak with them on a human level, and work together as a team.

6. Learn!

What worked well? What didn’t? The current environment for manufacturing and deliveries won’t always be “business as usual,” so take the time to learn how to work best during less than ideal circumstances. Put new protocols in place and add contingencies to your new contracts. Collaborate with your supplier on this once business comes back to “normal,” and work together to improve the process, and continue to strengthen the relationship.

Begin exploring alternative sources for materials. Make sure you have American sources for materials if/when you cannot source materials internationally. Since Quest uses American materials and all of our suppliers are based in the United States, we haven’t seen availability of materials decrease. The main slow downs we have encountered are people and delivery delays. Some companies are having to delay because they are awaiting shipments from China where factories have been closed since early this year and are just beginning to re-open.

Even though the atmosphere is uncertain right now, the solar industry is still adding capacity, and we are looking forward to contributing to this growth.

What have you and your company learned? We would love to hear from you. We wish you well in your projects and remember we will all get through this together.

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