It’s no secret the solar industry is growing quickly.
In fact, 2020 set records for the industry. The fourth quarter exceeded the quarterly records set in fourth quarter 2016 by 22%, and the year ended with 19.2 GW installed, 43% more than the capacity added in 2019 –in spite of the global pandemic, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Andy Nyce, instructor of HeatSpring’s Utility Scale Solar Construction & Project Management course and project manager for DEPCOM Power, says the growth over the past five years has prompted the company to make important changes to its operations.
Suddenly Taking on 20 Large-Scale Projects
When Nyce first began working for DEPCOM Power almost six years ago, the company was only working on one or two projects at a time. But as the industry and the company has grown, the number of simultaneous projects being developed, constructed or commissioned– all large scale, 10 to 100 MW–has rapidly ballooned to more than 20 at the time of this writing.
“Whenever you experience rapid growth, you are moving faster than you might have imagined. I think with that comes a range of interesting challenges,” he says. “We were taking on larger and more complex projects, and working in areas of the country that we hadn’t operated in before. There was certainly a learning curve for us, which has been really exciting.”
Strategies for Addressing Growth
To manage growth, the company has implemented a number of new strategies, including process standardization and improved communication through regular and structured meetings between key personnel. The company has also focused on hiring temporary employees for projects.
DEPCOM Power has just over 130 full-time employees, But at any single time, the company may also hire 1,000 to 1,600 temporary construction workers.
“There’s a cyclical nature to solar construction,” Nyce says. “Even with all these jobs running, there are still times when we’re busier than others. Minimizing overhead is a core value for DEPCOM so that we can stay nimble during challenging times.”
Weekly Meetings, Tracking Tools, Lessons Learned
To ensure comprehensive and accurate communication between the various functions of the business, the company schedules weekly meetings and has implemented a variety of unique tracking tools. The goal of these efforts is to ensure that team members stay on track with their tasks, understand their priorities and give various stakeholders insight into all the operations of the company. In addition, the aim is to give personnel the opportunity to ask questions and learn from their peers.
“We implemented initiatives such as ‘lessons learned,’ along with ‘end of project reviews,’ sharing lessons learned throughout the entire team so that we are all continually improving,” he says.
The tracking tools include Smartsheet and QuickBase, which allow the company to combine information from different sources into a single dashboard.
“This is a huge improvement and means that when we run our internal meetings, everyone has access to the same information in the same format,” says Nyce.
Making Zoom Meetings More Productive
“When we have Zoom meetings and the like, we all have access to that simple dashboard and it allows management and the subject matter experts to ask effective questions and identify problems. It also prevents issues or constraints from slipping through the cracks,” says Nyce.
Some of the company’s most important improvements provide standardized processes for ensuring safe work practices and high quality workmanship.
Safety is at the core of DEPCOM Power’s culture, Nyce says. Utilizing a simple and effective reporting program was one of the highest priorities. Today, reports are generated immediately after any incident–no matter how small– and communicated immediately to all levels of the company along with recommendations on how to prevent issues from coming up again.
On the quality side, DEPCOM Power implemented an initiative designed to recognize that a solar power plant is made up of relatively simple tasks that are repeated throughout the site. This process ensures that all the key stakeholders are on the same page about what the final product will look like once it’s 100% complete. It ensures that any questions or issues are resolved early, before a particular problem can repeat itself throughout the site.
The company has also developed, over a number of years, tools and checklists to ensure the work completed meets the required specifications.
“If you don’t begin by agreeing on what the finished product will look like, you’re not maximizing your chances of creating a product that all parties are happy with,” says Nyce.
The Benefits of Growth for Young Employees
While growth has created challenges that require such tools and strategies, growth has also yielded benefits for employees beyond their paychecks. Nyce, for example, joined the company at age 27 and was quickly placed in positions of responsibility.
“My experience in the industry has been life-changing,” he says. The company gave him many managerial opportunities and financial responsibilities very early on in his career due to the growth of the industry. “This type of career acceleration is unique. To work so closely with such a dynamic group of people in an industry and be able to directly impact innovation has been pretty special, and I’m excited to see where the next five years will take us,” he says.