When designing a large-scale solar project, it’s critical to tackle classic hang-ups as early as possible to avoid slowing a project and encountering cost overruns, says Ryan Mayfield, instructor, along with Randy Batchelor, of HeatSpring’s Megawatt Design course. 

Designers need to break a project down into stages ranging from pre-award to construction and commissioning. For each stage, they should identify problem areas, line up their subcontractors and identify risks so they can move through a project with as few hiccups as possible. 

Here are Mayfield’s suggestions for streamlining the design process for solar projects that are 1 MW and larger:

Start Early on Potential Problem Areas

Utility interconnection can hang a project up for a year or more and render a solar plan economically unfeasible. A roof  that isn’t structurally ready for a solar system can also slow progress and boost costs. And in certain areas of the country—like California and Oregon—it’s difficult to find subcontractors because workers are booked up. 

Be sure to address these and other hot button issues as quickly as possible, says Mayfield. 

The Biggest Challenge Can be Utility Interconnection

Utility interconnection can be difficult for numerous reasons, so it’s critical to start this process early, says Mayfield. 

“Talking to the utility is important. Get in touch and tell them you’re going to put in a system,” he says. Be sure to mention the size of the project: When solar projects are larger than 1 MW, it can be harder for utilities to accommodate them. “Utilities  need to do studies and make sure their lines can handle the solar,” he says. 

Utility lines might already be saturated with PV, he says. Utilities often tell solar contractors that a PV system can’t be installed without upgrades to the utility system. Sometimes they will ask that solar developers pay for transformers or other upgrades,

Those costs get built into the project cost. 

Utilities keep a close eye on PV projects because they want to avoid having excess production on their lines when demand is low.

“They will look at the lowest power values on their lines for a particular time of year and identify the minimum load on their system,” Mayfield explains. “The combined input of  PV systems can’t  exceed a certain  percentage of their lowest load.” 

And sometimes utilities will agree to a contract, then change their decision later, warns Mayfield.

Identify Structural Issues Early 

Not only is it important to address interconnection early on. An early site investigation can help project designers and developers identify structural challenges. 

“Walk through and get a good overview of what the site conditions are,” Mayfield says. Check the status of the electrical infrastructure.

“You really need to be able to spot a lot of things or take the right pictures or notes,” he says. Give photos and notes to your team—engineers and designers, for example- and ask them to help Identify potential problems, he adds.

In addition, contractors should pay particular attention to the roof. They should try to avoid  spending thousands of dollars hiring engineers to evaluate the roof by collecting field information, says Mayfield. 

“The onsite person has to gather data to be able to say, within reason, whether a project could work or if it’s on the edge.” Relay the information gleaned from walk-throughs to clients early on so they can plan for extra costs.

Line up Solar Subcontractors Early: They’re Busy!

After getting a feel for what’s unusual in a project, contractors and designers should focus on subcontractors. In certain parts of the country, solar subcontractors are hard to find, so it’s important to start looking for them early. For example, in California, the recent fires and public safety power shut offs have increased demand for solar systems, says Mayfield. 

“Identify the people you need and get on their schedules,” Mayfield says.

Typically, solar developers work with electrical contractors, roofers and racking installation subcontractors.

Some Clients Will Okay Cost Overruns 

When issues related to interconnection, building structures and subcontractors are identified early, it’s easier to move the project along quickly and also inform clients about cost increases. 

While costs related to these issues can kill a project, a few clients are willing to move forward regardless of cost. 

“Some will say, ‘I want this so bad I’ll do whatever,’” says Mayfield. 

Megawatt Design Updated and Beginning Soon

Come join Ryan and Randy in a new and fully updated version of their Megawatt Design course which begins in a few weeks!