From Concept to Reality: Advancing Your Solar Utility Project

Welcome to part 1 of a 5-part series following the progression of a utility solar project from initial idea to pumping out power. 

Lifecycles and Waterfalls

Utility solar projects fall into the general category of the “waterfall” life-cycle.  One phase is started, progresses, then finishes before then the next phase begins.  The waterfall project method is what is traditionally used for construction projects, in contrast to Agile or iterative project life-cycles found in the software or marketing industries.  The development of project management methodology is a relatively recent reality and its’ standardization even more recent.  (ref: A Brief History of Project Management). 

In the utility solar industry, the project management waterfall phases are generally;

  • Feasibility (10% design)
  • Preliminary Design (30-60% design)
  • Detailed Design (90% – IFC)
  • Construction
  • Commissioning and Start-Up

Feasibility, Risk and Reward

Evaluating a solar project in the feasibility phase is similar to any large land development project in many ways.  Environmental, permitting, financing and construction issues are evaluated alongside projected ROI and these are influenced by revenue projections, short and long-term costs, local and even geo-political forces. 

From the perspective of an engineering company, such as RRC, assisting a developer in the project  feasibility phase is all about providing comprehensive technical and constructability information.

Even when the focus is on these two facets, performing the analysis requires a multidisciplinary approach, especially when it comes to identifying risks  One overlooked factor, such as the downstream impact of flooding, or wide variations in soil properties have the potential to derail or add significant cost.

Optimization in the Feasibility Phase

The value that is most often missed in the feasibility phase is the looking forward to the later life-cycle phases where the detailed engineering occurs.  This type of optimization is typically reserved for later project stages but with large utility solar projects it is important that it is a part of the feasibility phase. 

For example, optimizing for civil grading to reduce tracker costs may actually increase overall project costs.  Optimizing the PV layout may be a matter of being creative with different tracker configurations, pile designs, and the like.   Adding storm water control to minimize local scour around piles may be a better solution than excessive grading and soil stabilization.

All these are factors that may be too costly to refine in the early stages but may have a significant impact down the road.  Having an experienced multi-disciplined team able to look at the potential site and apply their wisdom is a prudent part of the feasibility phase for a solar project.