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How to plan for the unexpected with solar development projects

By Dennis Breza, Director of Enterprise Development at DSD Renewables
Solar adoption has become more accessible and prevalent across the United States. The International Energy Agency predicts global solar PV capacity is set to almost triple between 2022 and 2027 — making it the largest source of electricity generation in the world. The Inflation Reduction Act created benefits to implementing solar, which will inspire commercial entities, municipalities and homeowners alike to adopt solar solutions more widely.
Even though solar energy brings robust benefits, it isn’t always seamless to implement. Sometimes developers can anticipate common installation issues, but what about unique or site-specific challenges that occur when least expected?
With the right planning on the back end and always “expecting the unexpected,” solving unforeseen challenges can be easy to navigate. Here is how developers can implement creative and effective solutions when challenges arise.
Environmental challenges

A DSD project

Combating climate change is one of the biggest drivers for solar adoption, but during the installation process, developers need to ensure they aren’t doing more harm than good.
There can be a variety of environmental obstacles that might stand in the way. Proper development diligence will typically uncover important considerations or red flags, such as local nesting species or endangered species, and hazards such as floodplains, high wind exposure or seismic zones. A developer should focus on accommodating or mitigating the impact of these issues to maintain the proposed planned development.
Navigating these hurdles requires thorough communication with community members, state environmental agencies and possibly even less-common entities like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), depending on where the project is located.
While working with Caesars Entertainment on a project for Harrah’s Resort and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, DSD Renewables faced a number of environmental challenges: the sites were located on multiple land parcels, on a landfill, in a floodplain and in a high-wind exposure zone. Additionally, we had to act quickly to solve these challenges since the New Jersey Transition Renewable Energy Certificate (TREC) incentive program was closing, limiting our development and construction timeline. Our original plan included ground-mounted arrays, but given all the mentioned factors, we adapted and dropped the ground-mount canopies, keeping all our proposed installations, including conduit, on existing structures. This mitigated risks regarding land-use impacts and shortened our development timelines.
The installations still required heavy coordination with the Division of Community Affairs, NJ Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and Atlantic County, among others. Ultimately DSD Renewables delivered a solution built on the landfill and fully elevated from the flood plain, while also uniquely designing garage and rooftop canopy systems to withstand high wind-loads. We also worked with the FAA on additional studies in parallel to engineering milestones since the rooftop installations, developed 85 ft high, were located in close proximity to a flight corridor servicing the Atlantic City Air Force Base and International Airport.
Structural setbacks

A DSD project

Aside from mother nature, some additional obstacles developers face often have to do with structural aspects or the makeup of the site. Mitigate engineering obstacles by asking thorough, upfront questions about the site. If the project calls for a ground-mounted portfolio, does the soil composition have the proper characteristics to install the necessary foundations? If the customer wants a garage-top canopy, is that concrete structure built to handle the additional loads that are going to be put on top of it? Can the rooftop last the life of the system, or will it need to be replaced beforehand?
Working with structural engineers to determine whether any upgrades are needed before or during the development process is critical. When customers have an older roof that won’t last the full life of the system or have a structure that can’t support the arrays, developers can negotiate the pricing of upgrades, such as new roofs, to be incorporated into the customers’ power purchase agreement (PPA) rate, so they’re able to pay for the upgrade over time. Creative engineering solutions, such as shifting the array location on the roof or strategically decreasing the number of ballasts, may also be employed.
In some instances, an old landfill may be the project site. In that case, developers need to review the post closure permit and work closely with federal, state, and local environmental protection agencies and perform environmental screening assessments. This is to ensure post-closure operation and maintenance will not disturb the landfill cap and that the cap capacity isn’t exceeded during construction activities or from the final load of the system. Engineered solutions, such as a long-span floating canopy design that distributes load on top of the cap via a spread-footing foundation, can be used to overcome this.
DSD Renewables had the privilege of working with IKEA on several sites including a project in New Haven, Connecticut. Upon completion of a geotechnical analysis, we quickly learned that we were dealing with sandy soil characteristics, which don’t have the bearing capacity for normal solar canopy concrete pilings. Our standard foundation design goes to a depth of 15 ft underground, and to ensure stability in the foundation, we needed to go an additional 40 ft deep. We had never dealt with that situation before and quickly began researching alternative materials and other projects local to the area. We found that timber piles – essentially telephone poles – were used in similar builds nearby. After verifying the methodology, our engineers settled on 60-ft timber piles to successfully support the entire canopy system.
Early understanding of a site’s underground or building characteristics allows construction teams to approach customers with the most effective solutions before development is in later stages and costly fixes are needed.
Interconnection obstacles

A DSD project

According to recent data from the Berkeley Lab, interconnection queue times have increased dramatically since 2005. With the rise of solar installation, there isn’t a defined way for local utilities to handle interconnection — leaving each one to handle it differently while making it difficult to know what to expect beforehand.
Unforeseen grid upgrades might be needed once on-site, which could raise the cost for the customer. There might not be enough capacity as previously stated on the feeder, and the utility’s timeline could get pushed out due to other competing developments — causing project delays.
Overcoming interconnection obstacles lies in coordination with the local utility. Due diligence must be done on the frontend to mitigate as many issues as possible. A solid relationship with the utility can help ensure everyone’s on the same page in terms of cost and the construction timeline. Setting pre-application meetings with the utility will go a long way to establish the relationship and uncover any potential hurdles, which could prove invaluable when something must be done quickly during development.
Part of preliminary diligence should include a review of posted online hosting capacity maps to see if feeders are restricted to that particular location. A technical solar assessment will determine a property’s renewable energy potential. If it’s necessary, the report will add to the construction timeline and that also needs to be factored into the customer agreement.
Conclusion
The reality is every site is a snowflake, and each future project brings about its own unique set of challenges. By performing appropriate diligence and having a deep understanding of the various potential hurdles — whether that be from an engineering, environmental or grid connection standpoint — developers can make early decisions that save time, money and deliver on customer expectations.
Dennis Breza is Director of Enterprise Development at DSD Renewables, focusing on the continued growth and adoption of a distributed generation grid model. Dennis lives the idea that engaging in innovative sustainability practices will lead to a cleaner, healthier future, and independence from fossil fuels. He has a decade of experience in management, engineering, development, financial analysis, and deployment of photovoltaic, battery storage, and microgrid systems.

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