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Questions to ask ground-mount system partners to increase project profitability

One thing solar project developers, EPCs and investors have in common – everyone wants their project to be as profitable as possible. Understanding what influences a solar development’s financial value is key to maximizing profitability over the lifecycle of a project.

Of course, due diligence in the planning phase minimizes risk and ensures a project is on track to profitability from the start, but even one missed consideration can turn into surprise expenses down the road. When assessing options for ground-mount racking, consider a due diligence framework to comprehensively vet both the racking partner and its systems.

Terrasmart partnered with Green Development LLC on a 51-MW site in Rhode Island.

Capping CapEx

Controlling capital expenditures (CapEx) is crucial to project profitability. The following due diligence framework set up a project for success in the planning stage, making a CapEx budget a fairly straightforward process. However, hidden costs not accounted for in initial CapEx calculations can still derail project timelines and send project costs soaring. While the organization-vetting questions can reduce the likelihood of these CapEx surprises, stakeholders can minimize risk even further by evaluating the answers in three main areas: subsurface conditions, topography and installation.

Pile refusal.

Subsurface conditions: Unexpected refusals can cause lengthy delays, hundreds of thousands in new costs and an inefficient use of resources. Over time, frost heave can cause displaced foundations, damaged modules and extensive disrepair, and soil corrosion can eat away at foundations. Determining who is responsible for refusal risks and associated costs upfront prevents unexpected budget escalation if refusal occurs.

Topography: New-construction solar sites tend to face more complexities than older sites, since the ideal flat and evenly surfaced locations have been scooped up. This is one reason it’s important to vet an organization’s experience with topography and weather conditions relevant to the project at hand – a track record of success on “ideal” sites does not translate to tougher conditions.

Installation: On-time, on-budget delivery depends on the quality of execution. No project stakeholder wants to be notified of higher material costs or additional labor needs due to inefficient design. One should again ask about the organization’s installation experience as well as the level of foundation and rack integration.

Optimizing OpEx

Operational expenses (OpEx) are the long tail of a solar project, and the post-construction phase is often overlooked. Predictable O&M is the secret to long-term profitability, and advanced software and data analytics can help here. For example, if an emergency occurs and maintenance needs can be pinpointed and limited to a specific section of a site, production loss can be minimized. Similarly, predictive analytics can mitigate risks of weather events altogether, and enable swift O&M responses if damage does occur.

Ramping up revenue

The solar industry is enjoying more revenue-producing opportunities than perhaps ever before. The Inflation Reduction Act is the most notable tax-advantaged program for solar developers and investors, but federal and local incentive programs, utility rebates, subsidized loans and tax exemptions all offer additional opportunities for stakeholders to boost revenue from new projects and existing sites.

10 questions to vet a racking partner

A solar project is only as good as the partners behind it. Asking these questions can help ensure a best-fit partner and prevent risks ranging from refusals to additional labor costs during installation.

  1. Is the supplier “terrain agnostic” and unbiased in recommending screw or pile foundations?
  2. What is the refusal risk policy? Who covers the costs of early refusals, and are there risks of refusals over time?
  3. What is the supplier’s experience with the specific subsurface conditions and weather challenges that could affect the project?
  4. What is the success rate for projects on complicated topography, including uneven terrain, ground undulations, and odd borders?
  5. What is the foundation and rack installation process – integrated or separate?
  6. Does the supplier use top quality materials designed for long-lasting foundations, preventing corrosion and deterioration?
  7. What types of software and data analytics does the potential partner use? Does the project developer have access to these insights?
  8. What is the organization’s track record of delays, surprise costs, or other unplanned expenditures?
  9. Can the organization quantify savings in labor and dollars from efficient installations in past projects?
  10. What is the experience of the team? Can they quickly mitigate installation challenges, adhere to deadlines, and provide dedicated customer service?

10 questions to vet tracking systems

Trackers are quite literally a foundational component of project profitability. Customized tracker systems designed for long-term utility yield projects with stronger financial results. These questions dig deep into the quality and performance capabilities of a tracker system.

  1. Is the tracker designed to accommodate a wide range of real-world foundation construction tolerances?
  2. Can the tracker accommodate high slopes and local changes in terrain with a single tracker row?
  3. Can the system be customized to meet project-specific requirements?
  4. Has the full-scale tracker undergone thorough pluck testing?
  5. Can the manufacturer provide evidence that their design accounts for specific pressures and combinations beyond building code requirements?
  6. Has the system undergone comprehensive multiple-row, aeroelastic wind tunnel testing within the project’s specifications?
  7. Can the manufacturer demonstrate that their design adheres to the tolerances specified in the wind tunnel studies, such as natural frequency, damping, and tracker length?
  8. If dampers are required for the tracker manufacturer’s design, can they confirm that dampers were included in the wind tunnel tests, and that the tested dampers accurately represent the final damper design?
  9. Can the organization access sites remotely for easy trouble-shooting once trackers are installed?
  10. Is the tracker system equipped for remote upgrades, enabling continuous improvement over time?

Ultimately, solar development contributes to the clean energy transition and its benefits to the environment and communities across the globe. Maximizing project profitability further supports these broader goals. Performing due diligence with these twenty questions will lead to the answers all stakeholders hope for a profitable project and a solar-powered future.

Overseeing the success of Terrasmart’s Ground Mount product portfolio, John Goetz has over two decades of mechanical engineering (BSME) and product management (MBA) experience in the industrial industry. John joined the Terrasmart team in 2023 and is passionate about developing winning products and software solutions that best serve each client’s unique project needs. With 28 GW of solar capacity installed across 5800 projects, Terrasmart’s 500 team members are committed to America’s solar success.

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