Three Keys for Success on Mid-Atlantic Solar Construction Projects

Solar panels for renewable energy

Solar Construction is Booming

Enthusiasm for renewable energy is strong in the United States.

As a result, solar construction is booming from coast to coast.

According to SEIA/Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables U.S. Market Insight Report for 2019, 39.8% of all new electricity generated in 2019 in the U.S. was solar.

Solar panels have been generating electricity for years but the renewable energy source continues to gain momentum as more private and commercial solar projects break ground each year.

The report also states that 30.4 GWdc of new utility solar projects were announced in 2019 and in 2020, Wood Mackenzie forecasts 47% annual growth for solar power.

Solar Construction Shifts to East Coast

Historically, western states like California, Texas and Arizona have led the pack on solar installation. Although partially due to policy, the West’s hot and dry climate also makes these states ideal environments for generating solar energy.

However, as more states mandate action to meet renewable energy goals, solar construction stretches into all parts of the United States, including the Mid-Atlantic.

In 2019, four Mid-Atlantic states cracked the top 25 for solar installation:

#6 North Carolina

#16 Maryland

#19 Virginia

#25 Pennsylvania

Many developers and contractors that have developed solar fields on the West Coast are now moving across the country and breaking ground on East Coast.

Challenges for Mid-Atlantic Solar Projects

Construction in the Mid-Atlantic is not the same as it is out West. The topography, weather and soil vary greatly between the two regions. Additionally, a new region requires new personnel. Although some contractors travel across country to the next project, there will be inevitably be new subcontractors, vendors and other personnel on site.

Owners, developers and engineers must plan around these key differences and adjust site plans, material selection and project execution.

Failure to do so could result in damaging erosion, project delays and a whirlwind of bad publicity.

We have been lucky enough to supply and service a number of solar projects in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, both large and small.

Some of the erosion control problems we’ve seen on site could have been prevented by following these three tips:

  1. Develop a great team
  2. Understand the unique environmental challenges
  3. Proactively plan and prepare

Develop a great solar construction team

There are a lot of parties involved in the construction of a solar site. This team includes:

  • Solar developer
  • General contractor
  • Civil contractors
  • Engineers
  • Subcontractors
  • Vendors
  • Municipality/Local consultants and personnel

No construction project is ever cut-and-dry but solar construction is a specific niche that requires specific personnel.

These projects often scale quickly by running multiple phases at once. If a single erosion and sediment control inspection fails or one deadline is missed, the delay will inevitably affect other phases of construction and contractors.

Solar panels on Puller Solar Farm

Compliance and efficiency are two of the top priorities on a solar project.

Make sure you select a partner that has working knowledge of solar construction and understands site expectations. Experience working in the region is an added benefit of any team member.

Know your environmental demands

The Mid-Atlantic is known for its seasons and variable weather patterns. In the Fall and Spring, weather changes rapidly from day-to-day in the Transition Zone.

Engineers, developers and subcontractors must use this knowledge to develop successful Erosion and Sediment Control (ESC) plans and Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plans (SWPPP). These plans identify areas that may contribute to stormwater pollution and how to reduce pollution during and after construction.

ESC and SWPPPs are critical for large solar construction projects that have to disturb many acres of land. The land where the solar panels will be installed must be excavated and graded to site standards. All that land disturbance leaves the loose bare soil subject to severe erosion.

Improve Vegetation for Best Erosion Control Results

The best way to prevent erosion is to establish vegetation. Contractors should temporary seed, install erosion control blankets or hydromulch to keep erosion at bay.

When a Spring storm appears out of nowhere, vegetation will be your line of defense to mitigate or manage erosion.

When it comes to seeding, you will need to use something more site specific than a Contractor’s Mix.

If you’re temporary seeding, choose a nurse crop that will germinate properly for the time of year. For example, seed Mid-Atlantic sites with Annual Rye in the Spring or Millet in the Summer.

Permanent seeding, on the other hand, requires more thought and collaboration. Your state’s Department of Environmental Equality, adjacent land owners, the local municipality, and specific environmental engineering firms all may offer feedback and criteria for the permanent vegetation. The result should be a custom blended mix that will thrive in the native region. It’s important to note that if a native mix is used it can take two to six months to germinate (depending on the variety) so plan ahead for permanent seeding.

Understanding the challenges of the region and customizing the necessary erosion control solutions can mitigate discharges, erosion and the downstream affects.

Proactively prepare

Most large-scale solar projects have the capacity to maintain a lay down yard of material and equipment. Contractors should keep these yards stocked with critical erosion control materials like silt fence, erosion control blankets, and compost filter sock in order to avoid lapses in construction activity.

For example, say an overnight Spring storm blows through your site. When you arrive in the morning, you find silt fence blowouts and destroyed check dams.

If you planned for that unexpected Mid-Atlantic weather, your on-site contractors can pull from the stock to repair the silt fence and install compost filter sock to prevent further erosion.

When the stock of erosion control solutions gets low, call your vendor to replenish your supply. Using a vendor that is local to the region to cut down turnaround time on material delivery. Time is money on construction and every delay equates to lost revenue.

Don’t let something as manageable as erosion control be the reason the site fails.

Site Specific Solutions Maximize Solar Construction Success

So often we’ve seen examples of solar projects spiral out of control because contractors fail to customize erosion control to meet the environment’s demands.

As solar becomes more prevalent in the Mid-Atlantic, developers, general contractors, sub-contractors, engineers and vendors in our region must work together to mitigate these controllable on-site problems.

Don’t be the next solar construction project in the news.

Build a better team that understands the site expectations, has a working knowledge of the Mid-Atlantic environment and prioritizes erosion control through material supply.

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Reinforced silt fence on Puller Solar Farm

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