It’s been 15 years since the birth of the utility-scale solar power industry. In that time, many millions of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules have been installed on tens of thousands of acres across the country. It’s not surprising that ideal sites for these installations are becoming harder to find.
When the first utility-scale solar projects were built in states like Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada, it was not difficult to locate sites with relatively flat terrain and little subsurface rock. Now, it is more difficult to locate readily available sites with sandy alluvial plains that are directly adjacent to a substation with spare capacity and an open bay.
Today’s difficulties run the gamut from shallow subsurface rock to multiple noncontiguous sites that must be interconnected to a single interconnection point. Contemporary sites may have steep grades or undulating terrain, which could require significant amounts of fill and allowing underlying soils time for consolidation to keep trackers within manufacturers’ specifications. Environmental issues and community concerns are almost certain to be compounding factors.
Solar Is Not Simple
Despite solar projects getting more difficult, the perception that they are easy to design, permit and build lives on. Though solar installations require fewer unique components compared with gas-fired power plants, for example, it would be an ill-advised conceit to assume they are simple or easy to execute. Because of the assembly-line nature of installing thousands of piles, trackers, modules, inverters and other equipment, a single mistake can be replicated thousands of times. If that mistake is not caught early, it can result in thousands of expensive and schedule-busting fixes.
This risk profile places an undue emphasis on perfect execution. In an environment unforgiving of mistakes, project teams have only one chance to get it right and that requires a laser focus on the quality of the team and nurturing a culture of continuous improvement. A culture of open communication, accountability and a passion for excellence becomes a value differentiator that solar developers, independent power producers and utilities should increasingly consider when selecting their engineer-procure-construct (EPC) partners.
Here are four factors that should be contemplated when looking for an EPC partner for your next solar project.
Do They Have a Culture of Innovation?
Overcoming challenges on solar projects requires a different mindset — maybe even a cultural shift. The engineering, procurement and construction teams must be willing to collaborate and sometimes be willing to throw away dusty old solutions in favor of things that haven’t been tried before.
Unquantifiable risks, such as geotechnical risks on most solar projects, require engineering and construction teams to collaborate and work together early in the project to anticipate potential problems and test solutions, including new processes for driving piles, mitigating step-and-touch potentials or even avoiding delays caused by soil consolidation or other geotechnical issues. This is a process that involves planning solutions with the end in mind and often requires taking a different look at how the project can be executed.
Engineering is supposed to develop viable solutions, but unless they are cost effective or constructable, actionable solutions may be elusive. The culture of innovation needs to encompass both the engineering and construction teams.
The men and women who have worked on such projects in the field will likely have innovative ideas based on experience. Designing with the end in mind means incorporating the construction team’s needs, limitations and even wants into our designs. Construction means and methods should be an integral part of planning for each project.
Does the Team Communicate Well?
A lot of us think we’re good at communicating, but facts show otherwise. Though many surveys have shown that between 70% and 80% of people think their communication skills are better than average, the actual evidence from our daily lives shows this is not even close.
Within our own execution teams, we can take a good look at how well details were communicated in planning meetings and observe for ourselves instances where team members were unclear about expectations or other key points.
Though honest self-assessment may be difficult, it’s necessary in building high-performing teams. A very simple step to avoid the potential for miscommunication is to invite construction team members to be part of the design team. The end goal should be a team dynamic that understands that projects can’t be designed without the construction team closely involved.
Make sure everyone understands there will be no pushback if anyone raises a hand and says: “I’m not sure this is going to work.” In fact, this should be lauded.
Is There a Contingency Plan?
An engineering team that simply hands over the design to construction and says “now go build this” may be in for a surprise. Engineers need to take another step beyond the obvious, one that lays out a range of options should the primary design encounter challenges.
Engineering and construction teams should have in-depth knowledge about the risks confronting the installation plans for their projects. Knowing what we know, we should be developing contingency plans for unanticipated conditions that could be encountered in the field. Something as simple as a decision matrix can save time and prevent mistakes and expensive fixes on the job site.
Giving our construction teams two or three options can be a valuable step. It’s a given that we will often face situations that don’t align with the design. Let’s anticipate and develop contingency plans to address challenges.
Is There a Proactive Culture?
At some point in our careers, it’s likely someone has come up to us and said: “You really need to be more proactive.” Think about how we reacted. More often than not it was negative, because we interpreted the feedback as criticism over something at which we failed.
Getting past this type of interaction takes a cultural shift. Cultivating a proactive culture means we have to get past negative, critical feedback loops.
Being proactive folds into the concepts of contingency planning, effective three-way communication and planning with the end in mind. Everyone needs to understand we are supporting our teammates when we take an extra second to look at something that doesn’t seem right. No matter whether it’s an issue with design, procurement or construction, and especially if it’s a safety concern, it has to be understood that we all have a duty and responsibility to speak up.
We all need to forget about the idea of staying in our swim lane and not sticking our nose into others’ business. As a project manager, I would rather have 15 calls questioning something, even if none ends up being an actual issue. And who knows: One of those calls may identify something that really does need to be resolved. It could be a call that saves a million dollars, all because someone raised a hand. True proactivity on an EPC team is baked into the culture. The whole team must agree that we only have one chance to get this right before a single mistake is replicated thousands of times across the job site.
Proving It in the Field
There are many EPC firms that provide construction, procurement, engineering, geotechnical and environmental teams — some of which, as in the case of Burns & McDonnell — are all inhouse. However, taking those capabilities to the next step of excellence requires a culture of innovation.
Building this type of culture takes consistent effort, typically over a long period. It also involves building in a bit of humility for the team in realizing that no matter how good we think we are, we can always do better.
A changing marketplace is complicating development of new solar facilities. Learn about the key factors for successful solar construction.