Construction, Part 4, Advancing Your Solar Utility Project

Now that your Utility Solar Project has been permitted, designed, and fully financed, it’s time to build!

A Ground-Breaking Experience

It is too often the perspective of the engineer that once the drawings are handed over to the constructor, their job is done.  This is rarely the case.  Construction is where reality and the engineering design meet, and reality always wins.  For example, if the Land Survey did not represent the reality of the land, issues with flood control will win.  If the Civil grading plan is based on that same survey then the cost of moving, importing or exporting fill will win.  Issues arising during construction are greatly multiplied with solar utility projects because of the shear scale involved.

One approach is to dial into great-detail the profile of the land, the accuracy of the topo and geological studies.  However, there is a point of diminishing returns.  It’s better to also have a plan to be prepared to address and solve construction problems when they arise.  This is where boots on the ground combined with subject mater experts in the office has found to be the winning combination.

Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

It is a common approach in the oil, gas, pipeline and similar industries to have on-site personnel working with engineers “back at the home office” to address and solve problems when they arise.  Solar project construction also benefits from this approach.  Having one or two people on-site may seem like a cost to avoid, but in comparison to loosing tens of thousands of dollars for each day of construction delay, it is a low-cost investment.  Common stories include reworking the drainage plan due to issues with culverts, or saving on the cost of non-native fill by being smarter about the compaction plan. 

Having an owners-engineer on site helps to ensure construction follows the plan.  Having a construction-engineer on site with home-office backup helps ensure construction problems are resolved quickly.

Knit-One, Purl Two

Another best practice in the construction phase is to build a PV string to completion to serve as a model / template.  Not only does it provide a visual example for workers who may be new to solar construction, it also is the proving ground for things like wiring relief (slack) lengths, wire bend radius, bolt torquing, wiring termination examples, and the like.  The quicker the sample string can be put up and “certified” the quicker materials issues can be uncovered along with having an on-site classroom for the construction crew. 

Because there is so much to the build that is repetitive, having one string completed gives  workers an extra ability to figure out clever ways to be more efficient, either with methods or tools.

Building out the site and seeing it come together is the exciting, albeit mundane part of the project.  Like a marathon runner putting one foot in front of the other, the construction of a solar utility site requires steady forward progress repeating one step after another.